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Assessment: Multiple choice questions

Multiple choice questions

Multiple choice test items can be used to test factual recall, levels of understanding, and ability to apply learning (analyzing and evaluating). Multiple choice tests can also provide an excellent pre-assessment indicator of student knowledge as well as a source for a post-test discussion. A class discussion can address why the incorrect responses were wrong as well as why the correct responses were right. Unfortunately, multiple choice questions are difficult to construct and can be challenging to select when using a test bank. The following information is designed to guide you in the development and pursuit of good multiple choice test items.

Multiple choice test items contain a stem which identifies the question or problem.  The response choices contain the correct answer and several distractors. This guide provides some general strategies and tips for designing stems and distractors.

General strategies

1. Be transparent. Align questions with your learning outcomes and instructional activities. A good question from a test bank is not always a good fit for your learning objectives.

2. Provide tips to students on how to write multiple choice tests, and allow the experience to be an opportunity for students to “show what they know”.

3. Write questions throughout the term, a few each week.

4. Instruct students to select the best answer. Distractors may have an element of truth but are not the correct answer.

5. Use familiar language. Do not introduce new terminology or use expressions that may not be familiar to all students in your class.

6. Avoid trick questions. Students who know the material should be able to determine the correct answer.

7. Randomly distribute the correct responses. This avoids patterning and guessing.

Designing stems

1. Express the full problem in the stem. Students who know the material should be able to answer the question without looking at the response choices.

2. When possible, state the stem as a direct question. This will help reduce vagueness and wordiness in the stem. Students shouldn’t have to read the response options to understand the question.

3. Include any repeated words in the stem. This shortens reading time for the student and reduces confusion.

4. Avoid negative wording. Students often make mistakes on negatively worded questions. If you are using a negative statement in your stem, highlight the negative word by underlining or capitalizing the word.

Designing distractors

1. Limit the number of distractors. Use between three and five options per question. It is difficult to come up with good distractors. The use of additional distractors will increase reading time. Research shows that three distractors are about as effective as four or five choice items.

2. Make the distractors appealing and plausible. If the distractors are far-fetched, students can too easily locate the correct answer, even if they have little knowledge. The best distractors help diagnose where students went wrong in their thinking.

3. Make sure there is only one correct answer. Avoid having two or more answers that are arguably correct where one is more correct than the other. Note, this differs from an element of truth in the distractor.

4. Make the choices grammatically consistent with the stem. This improves readability and reduces confusion.

5. Put the choices in meaningful order when possible. This could be numerical, chronological, or conceptual order.

6. Avoid using “all of the above” or “none of the above”. An “all of the above” option means students must read every response, increasing test-taking time, and penalizing slow readers. If the students know two answers are correct they may incorrectly select “all of the above”. If they know one answer is incorrect, they know that “all of the above” is also incorrect. The option “none of the above’ does not test whether the student knows the correct answer, only that the distractors aren’t correct.

7. Avoid using “which of the following” items. This increases test-taking time and penalizes slow readers.

8. Avoid using words such as always, never, all, or none. Most students know that few things are universally true or false so distractors with these words can easily be eliminated as plausible answers.

9. Make the distractors mutually exclusive. If one distractor is true, the student may assume another distractor is true as well.

10. Make distractors approximately equal in length. Students often select the longest option as the correct answer.