How to Write Multiple-Choice Questions

by Sep 25, 2012Uncategorized

Not the most exciting post for my readership, perhaps, but you two could improve any teaching you do if you learned about it: multiple choice questions. My supervisor, Brad Batdorf, Ed.D., recently gave a talk on the subject and gave me permission to share with you his excellent points.

Advantages of Multiple Choice Questions

  • Multiple choice questions are versatile because they can go up and down Bloom’s taxonomy [in other words, they can be about something as important but low-level as remembering, or they can demand greater capacities for understanding, analysis, or evaluation].
  • They can range in difficulty by what wrong answers you include
  • They can achieve high “validity” (i.e., they can demonstrate whether or not students truly knew the answer and weren’t just good guessers) and reliability (as indicators of class-wide knowledge).
  • They are efficient because they can be scored quickly.

Limitations of Multiple Choice Questions

  • Multiple choice questions are limited because students can still guess (though odds are low that a pure guesser will pass).
  • They are limited because they can’t get to all kinds of knowledge.
  • They are difficult to construct—if done well.

The Anatomy of Multiple Choice Questions

The Stem

  • The stem—the “question,” as it were—should clearly present a problem.
  • It should clearly relate to a learning objective.
  • It should be stated in a positive way.
    • “All of these except…” or “Which of these is not…”—these formulations can be confusing, especially if there’s a “not” among the answers.
    • Those questions also test mainly the negative, not whether or not they know the positive answer.
  • It should not give clues for answering other questions.
  • It should not exclude info repeated in the answers.

The Alternatives (A., B., C., D., etc.)

  • Alternatives should be concise to avoid unnecessary reading time for slow readers.
  • They should be mutually exclusive.
  • They should all relate to the stem in the same kind of way.
  • Don’t make questions which reward test-savvy but instead content mastery
  • Avoid implausible alternatives (jokes, etc.).
  • Avoid keywords from the stem.
  • You can glean plausible alternatives from wrong student answers in class or on previous tests.
  • Avoid “all of the above” or “none of the above.”
    • The latter may have more usefulness.
    • “All of the above” is a guessing aid because it can be eliminated if there is one wrong answer; it can be selected automatically if there are two correct answers.
  • A “functional” distractor has positive discrimination; “non-functional” distractors are those never chosen by students.
  • Have answer appear randomly, approximately the same number of times in each position. (Teachers who aren’t random usually put the right answer in B. or C.)
  • Alternatives should not distinguish good readers from bad.
  • Analyze the effectiveness of each item.
  • Don’t word alternatives ambiguously.
  • Don’t deal only with recall (the lowest level of Bloom’s taxonomy).


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