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How to design multiple choice questions: Is there a right and a wrong way?

The multiple choice question is a tried and trusted method used for generations of standardized and long format tests. In modern assessment, the multiple choice format can pose challenges, leading to poorly-assessed learning, high incidences of academic integrity violations, and students who are not understanding the material.

Multiple-choice question types have not significantly evolved since their invention, causing students to rely more on cheating the system than learning the material. While this isn’t always the case, instructors need to determine the most effective ways to create multiple choice tests without using typically coercive questions or answers.

How can instructors ensure they are testing a student’s understanding when it comes to multiple answer examinations?

Toss out the old model

While this might seem like a dramatic first step, starting your multiple choice model from scratch is the best option.

In a standard multiple choice question with four answers, two are likely to be very wrong, one is correct, and one is even more correct. When a student reads a multiple choice question, they rely on crossing off two incorrect answers. Students then guess which answer sounds the most accurate or valid as a way to select their answer.

This model has to change. To improve students’ learning outcomes, challenge yourself to forget what you know about traditional multiple choice questions.

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How to write effective multiple choice questions

If this is your first time teaching online or writing multiple choice questions, you’ll want to follow along! Writing multiple choice questions can be broken down into ten simple steps.

  1. Straightforward questions: As an instructor, make sure you write your questions with enough clarity to avoid confusion. The student should be able to read the question and statement without second-guessing the meaning behind it.
  2. Avoid misleading questions: The goal of testing is to assess your students’ understanding of the material, not to create difficult tests. Tricky questions are frustrating to students and can impact their learning experience negatively.
  3. Avoid new language: Use the same language on the exam that you’ve taught throughout the course. Sudden changes in phrasing, terminology or definitions make it difficult to gauge what your students have learned.
  4. Avoid negative statements: Avoid negatively-stated questions or double-negatives. These questions tend to confuse students rather than assess their comprehension of the material. Negative statements also slow down a student during the exam and question the rest of the multiple choice questions.
  5. Change position of the answer: This step might seem obvious, but make sure you change the correct answer’s position. If the third answer in the exam is always the correct one, students will notice. Or worse—they’ll try to avoid it because they believe it’s a trick—practice variation in placing your correct answers.
  6. Short and sweet answers: A common assumption with multiple choice questions is that the longest, most in-depth answers are the right ones, but this isn’t always true. Rather than making all the answers long and convoluted, try writing concise answers. This way, the student will need to recall the correct information rather than choosing the most complicated option.
  7. Plausible answers: All of the answers listed should be plausible but not correct. Make sure only one of the answers is best suited for the question. The other three should seem relevant but not trick the student into picking the wrong one. By doing this as instructors, you can assess which students absorbed the information and which did not.
  8. Avoid none or all of the above: These types of answers are confusing to students. When a multiple choice question ends with all of the above or none of the above, the student will automatically assume that this is the right answer. Swap these out with more creatively-worded solutions to avoid any guessing games.
  9. Reading comprehension: Reading comprehension questions may take longer to write, but they are a much better way of assessing students’ understanding of the material. Include a paragraph, a diagram, or a photo with the statement and ask students comprehension questions.
  10. Use short answer or essay questions instead: Short answer questions are an excellent way to give students space to explain their answers. While they may take longer to grade, short answer questions allow students to express their understanding of the material while also being the best way to determine which students did not grasp the lesson.
Student studying with a notebook and laptop

Setting your students up for success with practical examinations is key to evaluating students’ real learning outcomes, and not only their test-taking ability. Using these simple steps, creating multiple choice questions should be a breeze!

Remember that the purpose of exams and assignments is to measure knowledge. With this philosophy at the forefront when creating tests and multiple choice answer options, nothing can go wrong.

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