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Testing and Assessment:
Multiple Choice Exams

Multiple-choice exams are often used in larger classes due to the ease in grading as compared to other testing methods such as essay exams.  Multiple choice questions can measure both simple knowledge involving recall and higher levels of learning such as evaluation, analysis, and the ability to apply concepts or principles.  Multiple choice questions, however, do not generally measure organization of ideas, conceptual relationships, or proficiency in higher-order thinking.

Constructing good multiple-choice questions that are fair, accurate, and inclusive is difficult.  Planning is needed to give oneself plenty of time to construct test questions and make the appropriate number of copies.  It is a good idea to have someone take the test before it is distributed to students to assess multiple choice items for clarity and accuracy as well as “give away” answers.

Multiple-choice questions consist of the correct response (answer) and incorrect responses (distractors).  An important element in writing questions is making high-quality distractors that will discriminate those students who have learned the material from those who have not. 

Consider spending 15 minutes before the first test telling students how to take a multiple-choice test.  Additionally, local resources such as the Academic Success Center may be a valuable resource for students. 

The following are hints for constructing multiple-choice items.  For more information regarding devising good test questions and some examples of questions consult the following Web sites:




  • Devising questions
    • Make it clear in the question that there is only one preferred response (use words such as major).
    • The question should be able to stand on its own without needing to look at the responses.
    • Avoid questions that require students to pick an incorrect response rather than a correct response (which of the following is not . . .).
    • If an item calls for judgment such as the case in ethical decisions or controversial subject matter, provide the authority or source of the judgment in the question.
    • Questions should be written to assess knowledge of meaningful facts and concepts, not trivial information.
    • Do not include extraneous information in the question.  Try to state it as succinctly as possible
  • Devising responses
    • Answers should be as brief as possible.
    • The correct response needs to stand out as the best response in order to avoid doubt or confusion.
    • All responses should be grammatically consistent with the question.
    • Distractors should be plausible; avoid use of humorous or absurd distractors.
    • Take into account the relative reading level and knowledge base of the students taking the test; responses should not contain words unfamiliar to students.
  • Avoid giving clues to the students in the way that answers are formulated
    • Do not make the correct answer much shorter, longer or more technical than the distractors.
    • Do not put the same key words in the question and in the correct answer but not with the distractors.
    • Do not make the correct answer clear and concise and the distractors vague and ambiguous.
    • If the question is an incomplete statement, avoid distractors that do not complete it grammatically. 
    • Avoid phrasing the correct answer based directly from a textbook.  It will stand out from the distractors.
    • Do not include ‘all of the above; or ‘none of the above’ in responses.  These do not represent good distractors.
    • Avoid absolute terms such as ‘always’ and ‘never’ as they are rarely the right answers.
  • Other suggestions
    • Each question should be specific and address only one problem.  Distractors should be related to that question and problem.  Avoid distractors that are correct but unrelated to the question.
    • Some questions can be developed to enable a group of items from one information set.  If this is done, avoid giving away one item in another question.
    • Avoid use of gender pronouns; try to use neutral items.
    • Strive to develop questions that assess higher-level cognitive skills such as application of knowledge and problem solving rather than just recall. 
    • Distractors should represent errors commonly made by the students being tested.
    • The position of the right answers should be scattered.
    • Numerical answers should be placed in numerical order. 
    • Use only as many responses that provide meaningful discriminations.  A three-choice item can be as effective as four-choice. 

Question Sources

Possible sources of questions include teachers’ manuals provided for textbooks.  Usually this cannot serve as the only source of questions as it often does not provide many good questions and will only cover textbook material, not what was covered in class.  Students themselves may serve as a source of questions.   The yield of useful questions may be small, but it may encourage students to read their assignments more analytically and will provide a good gauge of what the students are getting out of the reading material.  When evaluating questions, statistical methods can be used and also consider inviting feedback from students themselves.


Wilbert McKeachie.  McKeachie’s Teaching Tips:  Strategies, Research and Theory for College and University Teachers. Chapter 7:  Testing and Assessing Learning:  Assigning Grades is Not the Most Important Function; 10th edition, 1999.

Naomi Schultheis.  Writing cognitive educational objectives and multiple-choice test questions.  Am J Health-Syst Pharm 1998; 55:2397-401.

Virginia Commonwealth University  |  Center for Teaching Excellence
Last updated: 06/20/2013
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