Do’s and Don’ts of Writing Effective Multiple Choice Questions
Multiple choice questions (MCQ) are a commonly used and super-versatile question type. They can be used to assess various types of learning, from testing knowledge of basic facts and concepts to crafting thoughtful scenario-based questions. There are many possibilities with multiple choice questions, but it’s important to remember that with multiple choice questions, learners are choosing from a set of potential answers. This means the correct answer is given away in the choices. If you need a learner to recall information without any prompting or guidance, then MCQs might not be the right choice for you.
Let’s take a closer look at the two parts of an MCQ:
- Stem: This states the problem or the question.
- Alternatives: This is a list of suggested choices. There are two kinds of alternatives:
- key: the correct or best alternative; the right answer.
- distractors: incorrect or inferior alternatives; incorrect choices.
Whether it’s your first time writing quiz questions or you’ve been doing it for years, following are tips and guidelines you can follow to craft effective multiple choice questions:
Do use plausible distractors
Plausible distractors are one of the keys to writing effective MCQs. You want your incorrect choices to pose a challenge to your learners, causing them to pause and think about which answer is correct. Obviously incorrect or outrageous distractors defeat the entire purpose of your quiz, because they don’t make learners think. In fact, using them means you’re just giving away the correct answer.
Coming up with plausible distractors can be quite challenging, so it might be helpful to talk with a Subject Matter Expert (SME), employee, or stakeholder who can provide crucial insights into the content. It can be helpful to identify common errors or mistakes and then incorporate that information into the distractors.
It’s also a best practice to avoid “none of the above” and “all of the above” as distractors. They tend to be easy fallbacks that people use instead of crafting more meaningful, authentic distractors. The same goes for “true or false” questions; these are best avoided if you want to truly test knowledge and challenge your learner.
Don’t give clues
In order to make an MCQ fair and challenging, it’s best to refrain from including clues about which alternative is the correct one. Sophisticated learners may be on guard for inadvertent clues to the correct answer, such as differences in length or formatting of the alternatives. It’s therefore important that your alternatives are similar in both length and language.
It’s also smart to avoid unintentionally giving away an answer to a question in another part of the quiz. Another clue learners may be on the lookout for is the use of extremes. Try to avoid using the words “never,” “always,” and “only” in your distractors. It’s also wise to steer clear of outlandish or unreasonable statements; that’s a dead giveaway of a distractor.
Do balance placement of correct alternatives
Correct answers (also known as “the key”) tend to be placed as the second and third option in a list of choices. Keep this in mind when you randomize your question choices. Have a mix of key placement, as first, second, and third choice. If you’re using an authoring tool that lets you randomize the order of choices (such as Articulate Storyline 360), you should go ahead and enable that feature.
Don’t use negative questions
The negative question asks learners to choose the answer that is incorrect; it’s one way that test designers try to challenge or “trip up” the learners. I personally think it’s best to avoid questions that are intentionally (or unintentionally!) misleading.
Here’s an example of a negative question:
Which of the following is not a company policy?
- Eating in your workspace
- Using the computer for personal use
- Taking a monthlong sabbatical
Isn’t that confusing? Negative questions often lead to situations where learners have to work hard simply to decipher complicated choices and understand the question before they can even begin looking for the right answer.
Do use other question types!
Let’s face it: multiple choice questions tend to be overused. They are a crutch that instructional designers fall back on time and time again. Next time you’re considering using an MCQ, ask yourself: Is there a different or more original way of presenting this question? Would a matching drag-and-drop activity be more appropriate? Would a hot-spot interaction work instead? Try to think outside the box and be creative with the types of quiz questions you use. Mixing it up will also make your content more varied and interesting for your learners. Here’s a great article about Matching Question Types with the Skills You’re Testing.
By following this list of do’s and don’ts, you’ll be well on your way to crafting engaging multiple choice questions with thoughtful choices that challenge your learners.
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As always Nicole, great article. As you note, multiple choice tends to be the "default" for many designers, and they're not bad, but designers should consider other options too as you state. For example, True/False isn't a bad option, the answer should be of course entirely true or false, and just don't use too many. One common pitfall of TF, MC and some others is they test "recognition", not "recall" -- the correct choice is presumably present. For recall, try short answer/fill-in's, or others. My last nugget to share on quizzing generally is avoid these two pitfalls: 1) Questions aren't aligned to Objectives. You may be surprised, but suppose your course has 7 objectives. You'd better be checking the achievement of those. I've reviewed quizzes where not one question has been asked o... Expand