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Writing Good Multiple Choice Questions

Question: Multiple choice questions

  1. place severe limits on what you can test
  2. can only test learning of facts
  3. are easy to write
  4. All of the above
  5. a and b only
  6. a and b and maybe c on a good day
  7. None of the above

Answer: G

Strengths of Multiple Choice Questions

Multiple choice exams are easily administered to large numbers of students and can cover a lot of material. Scoring is easy, objective, and, hopefully, reliable. Item analysis is possible to include: a) % of students who got each question correct and % who answered each answer option and b) discrimination statistics comparing high scoring and low scoring students.

Weaknesses of Multiple Choice Questions

On the down side, constructing good questions takes time and the clarity of the questions is dependent on the student's reading ability and the instructor's writing ability. There is a lack of feedback on the thinking process and there's no demonstration of knowledge beyond the answer options given. There is a tendency to test factual information only and this can encourage surface versus deep learning.

Developing a Test Bank

If possible, write questions and choices such that multiple test bank items can be generated from one basic question by simply changing the question or the answers.  For example, if a question asks, "which of the following best illustrates…" and is followed by four or five choices each of which correctly illustrates some course item, then that question becomes four or five possible questions simply by changing the question slightly. If a question asks, "which of the following is true about…" and is followed by four or five choices one of which is true, multiple questions can be generated by simply making the former true answer false and making a different choice true.

Do's & Don'ts – General

  • Minimize the amount of reading
  • Use words familiar to the students when not testing discipline-specific terminology
  • Don't never use double negatives
  • Assess key course concepts (versus trivia) and knowledge of course content versus test-wiseness, logic, or grammar
  • Be sensitive to diversity issues

Do's & Don'ts – Question (Stem)

  • Write questions that test various levels of thinking (facts, applications, evaluations, etc.)
  • Questions should be clearly stated
  • If negatives are used, emphasize (bold, underline) to ensure the questions is clear (e.g., "which of the following is not true" or "all of the following are true except")
  • Direct questions are preferable to incomplete statements
  • Include the bulk of content in the question versus the choices

Do's & Don'ts – Choices (correct answer and distractors)

  • Use 4 - 5 answer choices
  • Put choices in vertical versus horizontal order for clarity
  • Avoid unnecessary repetition of text in the choices
  • Include one definite best or correct option
  • Avoid making the correct/best answer longer
  • Make different letters/numbers correct and randomize (versus making "c" the most common right answer)
  • Make distractors wrong, but plausible
  • Avoid multiple correct answers (both a and c)
  • Include common errors and misconceptions in choices as a means of assessing comprehension

Some suggested practices

  • Before the exam - explain the nature of the questions, show examples, and give practice questions
  • During the exam - be available to answer student questions, clarify and rephrase if necessary, and announce changes if necessary
  • After the exam - use the statistical analysis to critique and revise questions, review at least the most troublesome questions in class, be open to student feedback on questions, and consider accepting their arguments and explanations for possible credit