How to Write Multiple Choice Questions that Make the Grade

Teachers have a variety of options for summative assessments. Students could create a project designed by the teacher to assess learning, but sometimes teachers just want to give a test to determine which concepts students have mastered. However, to really get a clear picture of student learning, multiple choice questions need to be well-constructed and require higher level thinking.

How to Write Multiple Choice Questions that Make the Grade

So what makes a good multiple choice question?

Parts of a Multiple Choice Question

There are three key parts to every multiple choice question:
  • Stem - the question being asked. The stem should be written either as a question or a partial statement.
  • Correct Response - The easiest way to write a multiple choice question is to create the correct answer after the stem.
  • Distractors - These are the incorrect options given in the problem.
To create a unit test, teachers should determine what key concepts were in the unit being tested. The multiple choice questions should focus on those ideas. When I create a test for an interactive notebook unit, I first create my teacher notebook, then I use my notes to determine which concepts were stressed in the unit and the depth of knowledge expected for them. From those key concepts, I narrow down the topics I want to use in multiple choice and short response questions.

Questions on the test should require prior knowledge to determine the correct answer. For example, true/false questions are really a 50/50 chance. The teacher wouldn't really know if the student understood the material or just guessed. A better test would have questions that used a variety of levels from Bloom's Taxonomy. For example, questions should ask students to do more than simply recall information. Other higher level thinking options require application, analysis, or evaluation. Teachers get a much better sense of student understanding from these types of questions. 

How to Write Multiple Choice Questions that Make the Grade
The goal of a test is to get an accurate picture of what students learned. Sometimes, test questions seem set up to "trick" students. These questions are not really effective and should be avoided. 

Writing an Effective Stem

The questions are very important. If they are not written clearly, students may select the incorrect answers simply because they didn't understand the question. For example, I play a trivia game, and I frequently miss the questions because they are ambiguous. A question might say that a product was the most popular for four years. However, it will be false because it was popular for 7 years. As four is less than 7, why is it wrong? The question wasn't clear enough.

What traits help question stems be clearly understood?
  • Questions or partial sentences are the most effective types of questions. Avoid leaving a blank in the middle of a stem - if possible, turn it into a question instead.
  • A good stem be clearly written without irrelevant information. Meaning, don't add extra facts that aren't needed in the question.
  • If any information repeats in the response choices, try to move it to the question stem. It isn't always possible to do, but it makes the answer choices clearer.
  • Avoid unclear language such as idioms and absolutes (always, never, only).
  • Avoid negatives. However, students will often see these on standardized tests, so I usually include one or two. If a negative question is used, the negative should be emphasized with capital letters, bold, or italicized letters. ex. Which of the following was NOT a cause of World War II?
Once you are done, it helps to have someone else read the test questions. I have found that it's best to ask someone outside of the subject area. For example, another history teacher probably knows the subject well and might easily identify the correct answer. However, the question may not be clear - he or she just had the background knowledge to understand it.

Creating Answers & Distractors

This is really where writing multiple choice questions gets tricky. There are a few general guidelines that should be applied across the entire test.
  • 3 - 5 responses per question is recommended, but this should be consistent throughout the test. Select the number of options to use, and then stick with that number.
  • Try to eliminate clues to correct answers in other questions. This is one that gets missed frequently. If a student can answer a question correctly just by figuring out the answer to another question, the question distractors should be edited. 
  • Be sure to vary the location of the correct answers. I always double check this, because otherwise half your correct responses could be option C.

For individual problems, here are some recommendations for creating a well-written response set.
  • The responses should grammatically match the stem. If the question is past tense, the answer choices should be past tense. A or an at the end of a partial statement stem can be a dead giveaway to the correct answer as well.
  • The answers should be homogenous. For example, if three choices mention the Union and one the Confederacy, most students will pick the odd one because it seems correct.
  • Avoid double negatives. 
  • All answers should be plausible. (Okay, yes sometimes it is fine to slip in a giveaway, such as "Mrs. Mezni invented the telegraph." However, if the goal is to assess student learning, keep it to once per test or less.)
  • Make sure only one response option is correct or "best" (if that is how the stem is phrased.)
  • The length of the answer choices should be about the same. It's easy to give more explain in the correct response, but that gives away the answer. 

In my research, there were a few recommendations that I want to mention but I don't necessarily agree with avoiding them. 
  • Avoid responses such as "none of the above" or "all of the above."
  • Avoid overly complex options. For example, choice sets such as  A, B, C, A and C, B and C.
Now, do I think those are the best questions? No, they really aren't. However, if students will see those types of questions on the standardized tests used by your state, it would really be a disservice to not expose them to those types of choices. Teachers should try to get a copy of practice tests or at least testing guidelines to have a better idea of what students need to understand. 

How to Write Multiple Choice Questions that Make the Grade

I hope this helped you understand how to write multiple test questions. If you have any questions or tips, please leave a comment.

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