Eight Tips for Writing Good Multiple-Choice Questions

multiplechoiceDo a quick Google search on “worst multiple choice questions” and you’ll come up with something like this:

Macbeth was probably written to honor:

(a) Macbeth; (b) Shakespeare; (c) James I; (d) God whose ancestors came from Scotland

With the half-way point of the semester behind us, and final exams around the corner, we thought we’d provide some tips for writing good multiple-choice questions. The eight tips below, drawn from the Teaching Professor’s Faculty Focus Blog, are based on Maryellen Weimer’s years of experience as a faculty member and from Kansas State University’s IDEA Paper No. 16: Improving Multiple-Choice Tests.

  1. Don’t plan to write the whole test at once. If you do, chances are most of the questions will be of the “When did Columbus first visit the new world?” variety.
  2. Start by writing the stem first. Aim for a stem that presents a single problem and make it a problem related to significant content in the course. Using a verb in the stem helps ensure it presents a problem clearly.
  3. After you’ve crafted the stem, write the correct or best answer. Make it brief and clear. It shouldn’t be longer than the incorrect options.
  4. Include all words needed to answer the question in the stem. Don’t repeat words or phrases in the distractors that could be put in the stem.
  5. Now write the incorrect answers, known as the distractors. Common student errors make good, plausible distractors. It’s generally best to avoid humorous options. Some research shows that they don’t relax students and ridiculous choices are obviously not the right answer so students who don’t know the material are now guessing between fewer options.
  6. Terms like “all,” “never,” or “always” are more often the incorrect options than the correct ones. Test-wise students understand this and use it to their advantage.
  7. Check for grammatical consistency between the stem and the options. If an answer option isn’t grammatically correct, it doesn’t sound right, and most students won’t select it.
  8. Most text experts recommend four or five answers options.

Here’s a suggestion: examine several multiple-choice items from your text book’s test bank. Do the items test relevant content? Are the items written in such a way that the correct answer is not easy to guess? Do the test items use language that makes it clear to the students what is being asked? If not, go ahead and tweak the question!

Weimer, M. (2014, March 05). [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/writing-good-multiple-choice-questions/

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