A multiple choice bubble sheet with pencil Photo courtesy of Josh Davis

Multiple choice has a mixed reputation. Some educators swear by multiple choice as an efficient way to design, administer and grade assessments targeting student comprehension of core concepts. Other educators critique it for the same reasons, emphasizing its overuse in assessments and the lack of formative feedback provided to students.

Fortunately, there are ways to craft multiple choice questions which are efficient to administer while also assessing the problem-solving and critical thinking capabilities of students. Here are some suggestions educators at institutions like Georgian College and Brigham Young University use to craft effective multiple-choice questions:

Write a question, not a statement

They are called multiple choice questions yet are often prepared as statements. Presenting prompts as direct questions (e.g., “What does Riemann’s hypothesis suggest?”) rather than incomplete statements (e.g., “Riemann’s hypothesis posits ________ “) is an effective way to encourage students to engage in critical thinking and analysis.

Use memory-plus application

These types of questions require students to recall core concepts then apply them to real-world situations. This separates the students who recognize the concepts and those who understand them. Brigham Young University’s Center for Teaching & Learning provides the following example of the difference between recall and memory-plus questions:

Recall Memory-plus
Which description best characterizes whole foods?

a. Orange juice
b. Toast
c. Bran cereal
d. Grapefruit
Sally’s breakfast this morning included one glass of orange juice (from concentrate), one slice of toast, a small bowl of bran cereal and a grapefruit. What “whole food” did Sally eat for breakfast?

a. Orange juice
b. Toast
c. Bran cereal
d. Grapefruit

Use plausible distractors

A common strategy for students is to use the process of elimination then guess. For example:

Which of the following is an example of a summative assessment?

a. Midterm exam
b. Golf
c. Tetris
d. Peer review

Two of these distractors are clearly not the correct answer so even students who don’t know the answer will have a 50% chance of getting it correct. Ensure all your options are plausible when crafting your question.

Avoid “All of the Above” and “None of the Above”

Similar to plausible distractors, if you only have a handful of options (e.g., A-D) to choose from students will only need to identify two correct options in order to answer correctly.

Don’t use Multiple Choice when not appropriate

Multiple choice is not always the most effective assessment model. If you are primarily assessing problem-solving capabilities, requiring responses in short-answer, essay, or handwritten proof models may be more appropriate measures of comprehension.

While initially they may require more time spent in preparation, using these tips will result in more effective multiple-choice questions which will ultimately benefit both you and your students.

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About the Author: Dustin is a senior account manager with DesignedUX, providing communications and strategy to organizations in education and technology. Dustin is also board member of the Canadian Public Relations Society and contributes as a communications researcher with McMaster University.