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Writing multiple choice questions

Examinations with multiple choice questions are perhaps the most common way professors evaluate their students’ knowledge.  Despite their common usage, good multiple choice questions can be difficult to write. 

Multiple choice questions are commonly used because they are easy to grade and students are familiar with their structure.  It’s also easy to write a multiple choice question that involves only recognition or recall of facts.  Questions can be written to test higher level thinking skills, such as problem-solving, but those multiple choice questions are harder to write.

Writing a good multiple choice question, no matter what level of knowledge you are testing, begins with good course objectives.  Course objectives need to be written in measurable terms.  If you are unfamiliar with writing course objectives, please see Course Objectives.

Definitions

  • Item = the entire multiple choice question
  • Stem = the first, sentence-like portion of the multiple choice question
  • Alternates or options = all of the possible multiple-choice responses
  • Keyed response = correct answer
  • Distracter or foil = the wrong answers.  They are called distracters or foils because they should be written to closely resemble the keyed response, therefore distracting or foiling students who are good as guessing.

General Hints

There are several tried-and-true techniques for writing multiple-choice questions

  1. Write the stem as a complete sentence.
    • Incorrect: The speed of light is:
    • Better: What is the speed of light?
  2. Avoid “negative” stems, or using negative words such as “except” or “not.”  If you can’t avoid a negative, then bold, capitalize, or underline the negative word.
    • Incorrect:Which of the following is not an Irish poet?
    • Better: Which of the following is NOT an Irish poet?
    • Best: Which of the following is an Irish poet?
  3. Make sure the grammar and syntax in the stem and options are the same.
    • Incorrect: The fruit William Tell shot from his son’s head was an:
      1. Apple
      2. Banana
      3. Lemon
      4. Pear
    • Better: The fruit William Tell shot from his son’s head was:
      1. An apple
      2. A banana
      3. A lemon
      4. A pear
    • Best: Which of the following fruits did William Tell shoot from his son’s head?
      1. Apple
      2. Banana
      3. Lemon
      4. Pear
  4. Make sure your alternatives are worded in a similar way (Burton, et. al, 1991)
    • Incorrect:
      You have just spent ten minutes trying to teach one of your new employees how to change a printer cartridge The employee is still having a great deal of difficulty changing the cartridge, even though you have always found it simple to do. At this point, you should:
      1. Tell the employee to ask an experienced employee working nearby to change the ribbon in the future.
      2. Tell the employee that you never found this difficult, and ask what he or she finds difficult about it.
      3. Review each of the steps you have already explained, and determine whether the employee understands them.
      4. Tell the employee that you can’t work with them anymore because you are becoming irritable.
    • Better:
      You have just spent ten minutes trying to teach one of your new employees how to change a typewriter ribbon. The employee is still having a great deal of difficulty changing the ribbon, even though you have always found it simple to do. At this point, you should:
      1. Ask an experienced employee working nearby to change the ribbon in the future.
      2. Mention that you never found this difficult, and ask what he or she finds difficult about it.
      3. Review each of the steps you have already explained, and determine whether the employee understands them.
      4. Tell the employee that you will continue teaching him or her later because you are becoming irritable.
  5. Make sure your alternatives are approximately the same length (Burton, et. al.)
    • Incorrect:  Which of the following is the primary reason people moved to California in 1849?
      1. Climate
      2. Religion
      3. Gold was discovered in central California
      4. Farming

Different levels of questions

Multiple choice questions can be written at levels to assess if a student is able to remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate and create facts, concepts, and procedures. Below are hints and/or templates for writing a multiple choice question at different levels.

  1. Remembering factual knowledge:
    1. Write the fact as a statement.
    2. Transform the statement into a question.
    3. Ask the student to supply the answer (fill in the blank) or write the question as a multiple choice question.
  2. Understanding conceptual knowledge:
    • Template:  Which of the following is an example of __________?
  3. Applying procedural knowledge:
    1. Prepare a short case study or example.
    2. Write a stem that asks the student to demonstrate the use of the procedural knowledge or solve a problem.
  4. Analyzing conceptual knowledge
    • Present the student with a diagram and ask for analysis.  For example: Given the following chart, which of the following is most likely to occur next?
  5. Evaluating procedural knowledge
    1. Give the student a short case study.
    2. Ask: Which of the following would have been a better plan of action?

What can’t multiple choice questions do?

Multiple choice questions are not good at measuring a student’s ability to:

  • Articulate explanations
  • Display thought processes
  • Furnish information
  • Organize personal thoughts
  • Perform a specific task
  • Produce original ideas
  • Provide examples

What if I need more information? See the references used in writing this webpage:

  • Burton, S. J., Sudweeks, R. R., Merrill, P. F., & Wood, B. (1991). How to prepare better multiple-choice test items: Guidelines for university faculty. Retrieved July 28, 2006 from:
    http://testing.byu.edu/info/handbooks/betteritems.pdf
  • Davis, B. G. (1993). Tools for teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • McKeachie, W. J., & Svinicki, M. (2006). McKeachie’s teaching tips (12th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Video: Writing Multiple Choice Questions

 

 
 
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Last updated: 06/20/2013
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