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How to Write Multiple Choice Style Questions

Sometimes referred to as selected response questions or fixed choice questions, the multiple choice variety of questions is a type of question that asks students to select the correct answers from a number of answer options. Test writers "fix" answers beforehand rather than leave them open for test-takers to supply or generate.

Tests of this type have an advantage insofar as answers can be quickly scored, which means students soon get feedback. And the method is an efficient way to evaluate large groups of students across a broad range of subject matter.

One disadvantage to writing good-quality multiple-choice questions is that considerable time is needed to write the questions, review them, and revise them. One tip that can save test-writers time is the idea of writing a certain amount of questions (or items) per day before or after classes when material is still fresh in their minds. It is more likely then that the questions written in these slots will reflect the material covered in a recent class, a practice that seems fairer to the students who will be taking the tests. Try and get into the habit of constructing questions in a way that makes them easy to shuffle, e.g., in a software program with cut, copy and paste functionality or on an index-card system. Then, shuffling them around later to build tests and quizzes will be a simple task.

One important thing to consider when writing multiple-choice questions is to construct them so that they measure a student's knowledge rather than the "answering" skills of seasoned test-takers. The tips provided here are meant to assist you in this respect, but there is some specific vocabulary that you first need to become accustomed to.

Advantages of Multiple Choice Style Questions

  • An objective way to score student answers and to statistically analyze answers for reliable and valid diagnostic data regarding student knowledge and learning patterns. Reliable diagnostic data refers to how consistently the results of tests are assessed and measured. Checking for validity means assessing how effectively a question fulfils the task it is meant to fulfil. It is not possible for a test to be valid unless all of the questions within it are valid. This article only covers the validity of individual multiple choice questions. With respect to each newly-written question, there should be a "yes" answer to the criteria below in order for it to be deemed valid:
    • Is there a crucial concept addressed in the question that the student should know about from their class or other instruction?
    • Is it a reasonable expectation for students to already have a certain amount of knowledge in order to answer the question?
    • Does the question require a level of thought process suitable for the learning goals of the student's course, the content covered in the question, the level of knowledge the student has on the scale of beginner to advanced.
    • Is it the case the question has been clearly stated in vocabulary that is appropriate for the intended test-taker?
  • Potential for the collection of sound diagnostics data when suitable distractors are in-built to address frequent misconceptions and/or mistakes.

Limitations or Disadvantages of Multiple Choice Style Questions

  • It usually takes a lot of time and it is often difficult to construct good-quality questions that properly evaluate the student's thinking abilities rather than their factual knowledge.
  • It can be difficult to find suitable words and phrases to ensure questions are interpreted in an identical manner by all test-takers.
  • When preparing to take tests based on multiple choice questions, students are prone to focusing on recognition rather than on recall. Studies undertaken in recent times on learning patterns suggest that information needs to be processed in order for it to be properly learned. Hence, the time a student spends on learning recognition techniques is less effective than the time that could be spent studying the actual information itself.
  • By relying on guesswork, there is a 25% possibility that a student who does not know a correct answer will select the right one out of four possible options. In the event a question has five answer options, the chance of correct guesswork goes down to 20%, and so on.

Best Test Writing Practices

The tips below are designed to help you write multiple choice questions in a way that effectively measures the knowledge of test-takers.

  1. The stem is the first part you should write and this should be followed by the right answer. Next, you should write the distractor options and these should match the right answer in respect of style, complexity level, length, and the way they are phrased.
  2. Each question should be based on material that should have been learnt on the course the test relates to.
  3. Leave enough time for revising your test and editing it.
  4. Where possible, ask a colleague to review the questions you have written.
  5. Make sure that the reading requirements for each question are minimal.
  6. Be consistent in how you use vocabulary and make sure it matches the knowledge or learning level of test participants.
  7. Take a sensitive approach to issues related to culture and gender.
  8. Make sure the language you use in question stems and answer options does not give away the right answers.
  9. Make sure that question stems and answer options are not too complicated and/or convoluted.

How to Write Effective Stems for Multiple Choice Questions:

  • The stems of questions, tasks, or problems should be neatly phrased in a clear and concise manner.
  • If additional words are needed to phrase a stem, one option is to leave the stem as an unfinished statement.
  • If you do leave the stem as an unfinished statement, you need to ensure the answer choices come immediately after the stem and that they are grammatically accurate.
  • The majority of information should be included in the question's stem in order to leave the answer options short.
  • Try not to use negatives in task or question stems if possible.

How to Write Effective Answers for Multiple Choice Questions:

  1. Make absolutely sure each question has only one correct and best answer.
  2. Keep the format of answer options fairly equal (if all answer options cannot be equal, create two similar options and the remainder similar to each other - the aim is to create options that are not distinctly different from each other in style).
  3. Answer options should be created so that they are mutually exclusive (e.g. do not use overlapping options such as 1 to 4, 2 to 5, 3 to 6, and so on).
  4. All answer options should be roughly the same in length and do your best to ensure that the correct answer is only the longest one in some cases.
  5. Use the "All" or "None" answer option sparingly or avoid it altogether if possible.
  6. Try not to use identical words in all answer options - you can do this by moving repetitive words to the task or question's stem.
  7. Where possible, the order of answer options should be logical.
  8. Try to make answer options as plausible as possible for test-takers who might not know the right answer.
  9. Any answer options that are rarely chosen by test-takers should be changed if you reuse the question.
  10. Some specific words/language should be avoided, e.g., "all," "always," "never," and so on.

Tips for Creating Questions that Address Thinking Ability

Undoubtedly, it is much harder to create multiple choice questions that address the test-taker's ability to think about and work through complex concepts than it is to create those designed to evaluate fact-based knowledge. Nevertheless, making an effort to do this can be very rewarding because these questions can yield high-value information very quickly about a student's abilities. This is especially so if you design distracters skilfully with a view to identifying weaknesses in less sophisticated thinking.

Creating stems for these types of questions can be something of a problem as can the task of trying to establish the student's thought process when attempting to answer such questions. The following are some tips for creating "thinking skills" questions:

  • Design questions so that they require a problem to be analyzed.
  • Set out a particular problem or scenario that requires the student to apply principles covered on their course.
  • Ask students to evaluate alternatives.
  • Create answer options that require an extensive amount of thinking and discrimination because this can test a student's ability to think at a deeper level.
  • Create questions that require the test-taker to combine a number of different ideas and/or concepts.