Multiple-Choice Test Questions

There are a lot of teachers and examiners who can relate horror stories about the first time they wrote and corrected multiple-choice exams. Some make the mistake of designing these tests so that students can show their substantive knowledge of their course’s content. Therefore, they write long, convoluted stems with the option to choose multiple answers or different combinations of answers. This does not work very well and can cause the teacher to spend a lot of time checking answers and figuring out if they are correct. Therefore, here are some tips for teachers on how to prepare multiple-choice tests:       

  • Do not attempt to complete the whole test in one sitting. If you do this, there is every chance these will be of the standard, pub-quiz type e.g. of the “Columbus’ discovery of the new world” type.  
  • Instructions should state whether the answer is to be the “correct” or “best” one. 
  • The stem should be written first. Try and develop a stem with just one problem but make sure that problem concerns an important part of the course content. Use a verb in the question’s stem because this helps convey the problem more clearly.
  • Develop the stem in either a) question or b) incomplete-statement form. Questions are usually preferable to statement-type questions because they are clearer about what is expected of the participating student.
  • Questions or statements should be phrased in a positive manner without any negatives. A question that is worded negatively can challenge even the most intelligent reader and, therefore, can really confuse students who are already stressed out. 
  • Once the stem has been crafted, develop the correct answer or the best one. These should be short and clear and no longer than the wrong answers.
  • When this is done, you can develop the wrong answers or ‘distractors.’ Those common errors that students often make are quite believable and make good distractors. It is advisable not to use humor in answer options. Research has shown that this technique does not help students to relax. Furthermore, silly answers are clearly not the correct ones and they leave fewer choices for any student who is unfamiliar with the material.   
  • Every word required to answer a multiple-choice question should be included in the question’s stem. Any words and/or phrases that could be included in the stem should not be repeated in distractors.
  • Incorrect answers are more likely to contain such terms as “all,” “always,” or “never,” than correct answers. Students who are accustomed to multiple-choice tests know this and tend to use their knowledge advantageously.
  • Make sure the grammar used in stems and answers is consistent. When an answer is grammatically incorrect, it sounds wrong, and the majority to students will avoid it. 
  • Mostly, you should avoid such choices as “all” or “none” from a list of several possible options. If you do use these, use them carefully. If the student’s task is to select the best option, “all” the answers is obviously wrong and “none” is quite likely to be wrong. Where the task is to choose the correct answer, studies have shown that “all the above” is correct in 25% of cases.
  • A lot of exam experts recommend offering four or maybe five options as answers.
  • When you have completed your test, mark out the correct answers to ensure they are randomly scattered within the full set of options. Students are quick to spot if, for instance, you are prone to using ‘B’ and they apply this knowledge if or when they are not sure of a question’s answer.  

If you have ever had a disaster with creating multiple-choice questions for a test, you should find the above pointers helpful. It can also help to compare a test question to a window that sheds light on how much of their course a student understands. If that window is imperfect – e.g. cracked, broken or plain dirty, it is much more difficult to see if your students have learned what you have been teaching them. An effective test question can be likened to a clean, unbroken window. They give a clear view of a student’s knowledge.    

Nonetheless, no matter how much sound advice you get or how committed you are to creating good test questions, occasionally a badly-written one can slip in. A question can be considered bad when a lot of students get it wrong and/or especially when a large number of the highest-scoring students get it wrong. If this happens, honesty is the best policy. Your credibility will not suffer for turning out the occasional bad question. However, it will take a big hit if you try to defend questions that you know deep down were misleading and confusing for everyone.   

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