Designing multiple-choice questions

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 several 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 benefit is that the questions are easy to mark and can even be scored by a computer, making 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.

We organized the following suggestions into three sections:

  1. General strategies,
  2. Designing stems (the question or unfinished statement)
  3. Developing alternatives (options)

General strategies

  • Write questions throughout the term. Multiple-choice question exams are challenging and time-consuming to create. You will find it easier to 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 that the distractors may have an element of truth to them and discourage arguments from students who may argue that their answer is correct.
  • Use familiar language. The question should use the same terminology used in the course. Avoid using unfamiliar expressions or foreign language terms unless measuring such language knowledge is one of the question’s goals. 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 similar to the stem’s words, students are more likely to pick it as the correct answer.
  • Avoid trick questions. Design questions 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 keywords by putting them in uppercase and bolding or underlining them. For example:

Iowa State University does NOT have a building of this name?

  • a.) Beardshear Hall
  •  b.) Marston Hall
  •  c.) Agronomy Hall
  •  d.) Ames Hall 

Designing stems

  • Express the full problem in the stem. When creating the item, ask yourself if the students would answer the question without considering the options. This step makes the purpose of the question clear.
  • Put all relevant material in the stem. Do not repeat each of the alternative information included in the stem. This step makes options more straightforward 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:

Poor example

From this prairie beginning, Iowa State University’s campus has grown to encompass approximately 140 buildings and renowned national landscaping. However, throughout its history of growth, the campus also lost numerous buildings to fire and the wrecking ball, such as the Chemistry Building, Margaret Hall, Old Main, the original Veterinary Hospital, Clyde Williams Stadium, numerous barns, cottages, and temporary buildings. What building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965?

  1. Morrill Hall
  2. Beardshear Hall
  3. Farm House 
  4. Agronomy Hall

A better example

What is the oldest structure designated as a National Landmark on Campus?

  1. Morrill Hall
  2. Beardshear Hall
  3. *Farm House 
  4. Agronomy Hall

Developing alternatives

  • Limit the number of alternatives. Use between three and five options per question. Research shows that three-choice items are about as effective as four or five-choice items, mainly because it is challenging to develop plausible distractors.
  • Make sure there is only one best answer. Avoid having two or more correct options, but one is “more” accurate 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 quickly locate the correct answer. Even if they have little knowledge when testing to recognize 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.

Poor example: Which of the following artists is known for painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel?

      1. Warhol.
      2. Homer Simpson.
      3. Michelangelo.
      4. Tom Hanks.

It is unlikely that students would choose 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:

Better example: Which of the following artists is known for painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel?

      1. Botticelli.
      2. da Vinci.
      3. Michelangelo.
      4. Raphael

  • Make the choices grammatically consistent with the stem. Read the stem and each of the options aloud to make sure that they are grammatically correct.
  • Place the choices in some meaningful order. When possible, place the options in numerical, chronological, or conceptual order. A better-structured question is easier to read and respond to:

    During what period was George Washington Carver a student/faculty at Iowa State?
    1. 1861-1866
    2. 1871-1876
    3. *1891-1896
    4. 1901-1906
  • Randomly distribute the correct response. The exam should have roughly the same number of correct answers: 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 solution must not be “all of the above.” A student may also read the first option, determine that it is correct, and misled into choosing it without reading all of the possibilities.
  • 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 asked, and the choices are often different. A better practice is to present these questions in True/False format.

Designing Multiple-Choice Questions developed by the Centre for Teaching Excellence at the University of Waterloo (retrieved on February 22, 2021) from https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-resources/teaching-tips/developing-assignments/assignment-design/designing-multiple-choice-questions, and Multiple choice exam construction Center for Teaching Excellence at Duquesne University retrieved (February 23, 2021) from https://www.duq.edu/about/centers-and-institutes/center-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-and-learning-at-duquesne/multiple-choice-exam-construction