Designing multiple-choice questions

A multiple-choice question (MCQ) is composed of two parts: a stem that identifies the question or problem, and a set of alternatives or possible answers that contain a key that is the best answer to the question, and a number of distractors that are plausible but incorrect answers to the question. Students respond to MCQs by indicating the alternative that they believe best answers or completes the stem. There are many advantages to using MCQs for assessment. One key advantage is that the questions are easy to mark and can even be scored by a computer, which makes them an attractive assessment approach for large classes. Well designed MCQs allow testing for a wide breadth of content and objectives and provide an objective measurement of student ability.

The following suggestions for designing MCQs are organized into three sections: 1) general strategies, 2) designing stems, and 3) designing alternatives.

General strategies

  • Write questions throughout the term. Multiple-choice question exams are challenging and time-consuming to create. You will find it easier if you write a few questions each week, perhaps after a lecture when the course material is still fresh in your mind.

  • Instruct students to select the “best answer” rather than the “correct answer”. By doing this, you acknowledge the fact that the distractors may have an element of truth to them and discourage arguments from students who may argue that their answer is correct as well.

  • Use familiar language. The question should use the same terminology that was used in the course. Avoid using unfamiliar expressions or foreign language terms, unless measuring knowledge of such language is one of the goals of the question. Students are likely to dismiss distractors with unfamiliar terms as incorrect.

  • Avoid giving verbal association clues from the stem in the key. If the key uses words that are very similar to words found in the stem, students are more likely to pick it as the correct answer.

  • Avoid trick questions. Questions should be designed so that students who know the material can find the correct answer. Questions designed to lead students to an incorrect answer, through misleading phrasing or by emphasizing an otherwise unimportant detail of the solution, violate this principle.

  • Avoid negative wording. Students often fail to observe negative wording and it can confuse them. As a result, students who are familiar with the material often make mistakes on negatively worded questions. In general, avoid having any negatives in the stem or the options. In the rare cases where you use negatives be sure to emphasize the key words by putting them in upper case, and bolding or underlining them. For example:

    The University of Waterloo does NOT have a building of this name?

    a.) B.C. Matthews Hall
    b.) Carl A. Pollock Hall
    c.) I.L. Neilson Hall
    d.) Douglas Wright Engineering Building

Designing stems

  • Express the full problem in the stem. When creating the item, ask yourself if the students would be able to answer the question without looking at the options. This makes the purpose of the question clear.

  • Put all relevant material in the stem. Do not repeat in each of the alternatives information that can be included in the stem. This makes options easier to read and understand, and makes it easier for students to answer the question quickly.

  • Eliminate excessive wording and irrelevant information from the stem. Irrelevant information in the stem confuses students and leads them to waste time:

    A number of books have been published about the University of Waterloo. These books fall into various genres such as photographic histories, biographies of prominent people involved with the University, and accounts of the history of individual departments. Among them was a book whose author is known as "Simon the Troll". What is the title of this book?

    a.) Dreaming in Technicolor
    b.) Water Under the Bridge
    c.) Of Mud and Dreams
    d.) Images of Waterloo

    Most of the stem is not necessary to answer the question. A better question would be:

    What is the title of the book about Waterloo written by “Simon the Troll”?

    e.) Dreaming in Technicolor
    f.) *Water Under the Bridge
    g.) Of Mud and Dreams
    h.) Images of Waterloo

Designing alternatives

  • Limit the number of alternatives. Use between three and five alternatives per question. Research shows that three-choice items are about as effective as four or five-choice items, mainly because it is difficult to come up with plausible distractors.

  • Make sure there is only one best answer. Avoid having two or more options that are correct, but where one is “more” correct than the others. The distractors should be incorrect answers to the question posed in the stem.

  • Make the distractors appealing and plausible. If the distractors are farfetched, students will too easily locate the correct answer, even if they have little knowledge. When testing for recognition of key terms and ideas keep the distractors similar in length and type of language as the correct solution. When testing conceptual understanding, distractors should represent common mistakes made by students.

    Waterloo Counselling Services provides workshops about:

    a.) cooking skills
    b.) hockey refereeing
    c.) *study skills
    d.) fire safety and prevention

    It is unlikely that students would choose options a, b, or d, even if they didn’t know the answer. A better question would have plausible links between the stem and the distractors:

    Waterloo Counselling Services provides workshops about:

    a.) preparing for marriage
    b.) presentation skills
    c.) * study skills
    d.) psychotherapy research

  • Make the choices gramatically consistent with the stem. Read the stem and each of the choices aloud to make sure that they are grammatically correct.

  • Place the choices in some meaningful order. When possible, place the choices in numerical, chronological or conceptual order. A better structured question is easier to read and respond to:

    During what period was James Downey the president of Waterloo?

    a.) 1990-1996
    b.) 1991-1997
    c.) 1992-1998
    d.) *1993-1999

  • Randomly distribute the correct response. The exam should have roughly the same number of correct answers that are a's, b's, c's, and d's (assuming there are four choices per question).

  • Avoid using “all of the above”. If “all of the above” is an option and students know two of the options are correct, the answer must be “all of the above”. If they know one is incorrect, the answer must not be “all of the above”. A student may also read the first option, determine that it is correct, and be misled into choosing it without reading all of the options.

  • Avoid using “none of the above”. The option “none of the above” does not test whether the student knows the correct answer, but only that he/she knows the distractors aren’t correct.

  • Refrain from 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 in them can often be easily dismissed.

  • Avoid overlapping choices. Make the alternatives mutually exclusive. It should never be the case that if one of the distractors is true, another distractor must be true as well.

  • Avoid questions of the form “Which of the following statements is correct?” There is no clear question being asked, and the choices are often heterogeneous. Such questions are better presented in the form of True/False questions.

Other Resources

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