How To: Write Effective Multiple Choice Questions

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10 Tips To Up Your Multiple Choice Deck and Better Assess Students

Turns out, there are quite a few factors that play into writing the perfect MC question. That’s why the geniuses at FactSumo have got you covered.

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by Brendan Bense

April 12, 2019

A short guide to writing effective multiple choice questions.

Multiple Choice (MC) questions are the bane of test-makers everywhere. Why? It’s pretty difficult to write an awesome multiple choice question. Turns out, there are quite a few factors that play into writing the perfect MC question. That’s why the geniuses at FactSumo have got you covered. Whether it’s creating a FactSumo deck for learners everywhere or a test for your own students, we want to share with you the hottest tips for writing killer MC questions. Great MC questions lead to better students. Writing better exams means you can better assess your students’ needs and abilities. So let’s get started!

1. Stay on topic

The most effective questions are written with a learning objective (the skill you want to build) in mind.

What’s the point of a good question when the content isn’t relevant to the topic? Let’s start at square one here. It’s vital that your question matches the content you want to teach!  Makes sense, right? It wouldn’t be logical to include a question concerning DNA when the test is about architecture. This is an extreme example, of course. However, this can occur at a more subtle level. And your MC questions may be doing this without you realizing. Above all, you should be focused on what you want your students to learn. What do you want your students to get out of your teaching?

Maybe you want to create a FactSumo path on geology. If one deck is focusing on plate tectonics, your multiple choice questions shouldn’t be about diamonds and minerals. Although the main study topic is indeed geology, doesn’t mean you can ask anything about geology. That’s why it’s important to focus in on what your material is actually about, so the wrong answers are at least plausible. Keep them relevant to the chapter, assignment, or deck you’re creating!

2. Focus on High-Level Thinking

The most effective questions go beyond superficial recall of knowledge by asking students to interpret facts, evaluate situations, explain cause and effect, make inferences, and predict results.

While it’s important to know the facts, they’re a small part of a larger learning picture.  Facts make up key concepts and themes. Your questions, therefore, should speak to these. While it’s easy to ask basic and boring questions, that won’t do much to engage your audience (or students, in this case). We consider the multiple choice question a two step process. First, a student must recall the fact at hand. These facts can be simple, such as a date or time period, or they can be complex, like an advanced chemical process. Then, they must apply that fact to the question. A MC question that simply addresses the first component won’t be nearly as memorable or effective.

For example, let’s look at two MC questions about plate tectonics:

Memory Only

What is the place where two plates collide?

  1. Divergent boundary
  2. Convergent boundary
  3. Transform boundary
  4. Deformed boundary

Memory + Application

A geologist discovers a spot beneath the Earth in California where two plates are colliding, causing earthquakes. What has the geologist discovered?

  1. Divergent boundary
  2. Convergent boundary
  3. Transform boundary
  4. Deformed boundary

Both MC questions, in essence, are asking the same thing. And both questions even have the same right and wrong answers. So why is the second question more effective? The concept is put in a real-life situation, instead of just asking students to repeat facts they’ve learned. Situating questions in life-like scenarios makes the answer more memorable and leads to better retention rates.

A geologist is studying in a building in California when the room starts to shake. The readings on the seismograph show the instrument drawing lines back and forth rapidly. The geologist concurs:

  1. An earthquake is happening
  2. A hurricane is happening
  3. A flood is happening
  4. There is a party upstairs

This question is an example showing how you can test student knowledge on a cause-effect relationship. While this is a basic question, it explains how to interpret phenomena given a certain environment and scenario.

Sally sets up three jars to show the effects of a special fertilizer on pea plants. One jar of plants receives no special fertilizer. The second has half fertilizer and half regular soil, and the last is entirely special fertilizer. Why does Sally need a jar with no special fertilizer?

  1. So she has more data to write about
  2. The jar with no fertilizer acts as a control group
  3. Pea plants will die with too much special fertilizer
  4. An experiment requires at least three groups

Here we’re asking students to justify a method or procedure. This is often easier to understand as a scientific process, but methods and procedures can apply to any area of study. There is always a way of doing something, and if students can recognize why it is done that way, they will have a great understanding of the material!

3. Be clear and concise

Don’t use confusing language in an attempt to trick your students. Keep it straightforward.

Nothing is more aggravating than a MC question that is confusing to understand. When students can’t understand the question that is being asked, then it is a bad question. So what do we mean when we say clear and concise? Well, there are a lot of factors at play here. First off, it’s vital to make sure you’re using correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation. A misspelled word or an erroneous comma could change the meaning of a question entirely.

Take a look at how this question is worded.

After the Civil War ended, African Americans were NOT free to do all of the following except for:

  1. become employed
  2. live freely
  3. access equal education
  4. vote

Confusing, isn’t it? The way this question is phrased is pretty intimidating, and can throw even the strongest students off, simply because it’s a double negative. Double negatives should be avoided at all costs! How can we rephrase this so it makes more sense?

After the Civil War ended in 1865, African Americans were free from slavery but still had to fight for:

  1. Freedom
  2. Voting rights
  3. Right to own property
  4. Right to move throughout the country

We’ve restructured this MC question so it clearly illustrates what it wants to ask. Clear and concise also means both the question and answers aren’t extremely long or extremely short. This is especially true for answers, as students may be able to pick out the correct answer by eliminating ones that seem out of place.

4. Don’t give away the answer

Make sure your answers are reasonably and thematically close together, but far enough apart that students who know the material will get it right.

This may seem pretty obvious, but it’s important not to spoon-feed all the answers to students. A good MC question is both clear and fair. Looking back to tip #1, if you’re writing a test revolving around plate tectonics, your wrong answers shouldn’t be about another chapter in geology. That way, you aren’t giving students a chance at eliminating false answers that shouldn’t have been put in. If you’re going to use false answers that are obviously incorrect, don’t include them! The goal is for students who actually know and understand the material to get the correct answer, not for those who don’t to guess their way through the test.

Additionally, students should get the gist of the material. Keep the answers to your MC questions relative to one another. While you shouldn’t give away the answer, don’t make the answers extremely precise. For example:

What year did the Civil War end?

  1. 1865
  2. 1864
  3. 1866
  4. 1867

These answers should be reselected to focus on the era, not the specific year. While it’s important to know the Civil War ended in 1865, you’ll be punishing students that know the war was fought in the beginning of the 1860s.

5. Notes on All of the Above / None of the Above

Don’t turn your exam into a guessing game for students.

Generally, when educators put these options in at the end, they are the answer students are going to select. It’s much easier to guess at these questions because it only requires to figure out two right or wrong answers to know if the Above answer is right. For All of the Above, students just need to know if two of the answers are right to select that option. For None of the Above, students only need to know if two of the answers are wrong to select the option. If you absolutely have to use these, use them sparingly. They can make for some interesting choices, but not when they’re the answer for every other question on the test. A productive way to use them might be when they need to understand the wrong choices, and singling out those wrong choices can be very effective. These options prevent students from proving they truly know the correct answer. Try to limit what the students need to focus on to one main point per question, as they can only process one thing at a time. Remember, you’re the teacher with expertise. Having students focus on multiple themes or topics at once can be overwhelming. Stick to a main point per question.

6. Sometimes a MC isn’t the answer

MC questions aren’t the only type of question you have to use!

As they say, variety is the spice of life. It may seem counterintuitive on a list of tips to create great multiple choice questions, but sometimes the question is best asked through a different medium. While MC questions are awesome, switching up how you ask a question will keep students on their toes. Sometimes it’s nearly impossible to get the same answer out of a MC question as you would from an essay response. MC questions shouldn’t be a last resort, either, and just as you will see in tip #8, it’s best to keep things as randomized as possible.

For instance, on FactSumo it’s possible to input the answer to a question manually. This isn’t a MC question, but it might be the perfect format for certain decks. If you’re creating a deck on spelling, this would be a great way to test spellers on the content! There’s no better method than to spell the word out manually. However, on decks like driver exams, the input method wouldn’t work out so well because of how varied the answers can be. Take a look at an example:

When a light turns green, you should:

While you could make students input the answer, it may be difficult for computers to pick up on the varied inputs. Some students may simply say, “go”, while others might say, “look before moving forward.” Here it might be better to use a MC question. Here’s another example:

A ___ sign means you must come to a full stop before continuing.

Clearly there is one answer here (“stop”), so all inputs should be the same. Since this question is straightforward and leaves no room for error, it’s okay to leave it as an input. Here’s another example:

The answer to the equation 6 x 32 is ___.

Here you may want to test students’ ability to do multiplication on paper, and may not list wrong answers, as they would be able to guess or estimate the correct answer without doing the work. Instead, leaving a blank allows the students to do the work and not rely on guessing or by using elimination techniques.

This is all to say that the way you ask a question can be more varied than just a MC question, and sometimes a MC just isn’t the type you’re looking for!

7. Phrase it as a question

Questions that present a definite problem allow students to focus on answering the questions and the learning outcome.

Instead of using blank answers, such as “John is at the ___.”, use questions to frame the MC: “Where is John?” If you recall tip #2, remember that this question lacks a bit of context, and so needs more added to become clear enough to answer. Students respond better to MC questions when it is actually asked in question form!

Take a look at this question:

The study of rocks and earth science is called ___.

  1. astronomy
  2. geology
  3. chemistry
  4. botany

We tend to shy away from using fill in the blanks and other statement MC questions because it’s not as concrete as asking a question. Instead, let’s change this to a question so as to avoid the blank.

What is the study of earth science, rocks, and minerals called?

  1. astronomy
  2. geology
  3. chemistry
  4. botany

Now the question focuses more clearly and gives the students a more concrete objective!

8. Randomize when possible

FactSumo randomizes the answers for you.

Nothing freaks students out more than when the answer to every question is A on a test of 100 questions. While that would test if students knew questions, it doesn’t help much with their anxiety, and some may start to notice a pattern anyway. That’s why FactSumo randomizes answers! While you can list your questions thematically, your answers will always keep students on their toes. Our program automatically establishes a unique and random pattern for your questions. The goal, after all, is to test students on the material, not on their ability to recognize a pattern.

9. Use one correct answer

Students may be confused when they are instructed to choose the “best” answer.

This is a weird tip, and we know what you’re thinking: of course MC questions should have only one right answer! Although that may be the case, be careful not to have another option that is close to the correct answer. This is pretty similar to tip #3. For example:

John is trying to locate Apple headquarters, but is having trouble. Where was Apple founded?

  1. Cupertino
  2. California
  3. US
  4. Earth

Why do we hate this question so much? They’re all technically correct! Of course, option A is the most correct, but we’d feel a little cheated if we answered with the others and they were marked wrong. As educators, it’s best to eliminate confusion, because questions like these will just hurt students who truly know the material. Make sure the other options aren’t construed as correct, or technically correct, because it won’t be a fair MC question!

10. Don’t be so negative

Negative questions include words like: not, but, except, or neither

No, we don’t mean your attitude. We’re returning to tip #3, because it’s such a good one. The goal, as we have said, is to eliminate confusion and test students on the material at hand. Remember, the goal is to have students prove to you that they know the correct answer. That’s why we’re suggesting NOT to use negative questions often. Why? Students may simply answer incorrectly because they misunderstood the parameters of the question. Here’s a perfect way NOT to phrase a negative:

When did the US not declare independence?

  1. After 1776
  2. 1776
  3. Before 1776
  4. Before 1774

This question is awful for a few reasons. First, it doesn’t highlight the fact it’s asking a negative. Second, the question doesn’t need to even be asked in the negative to be effective. Third, the answers aren’t clear. If it’s appropriate and clear, however, you may add a few negative questions. The key here is clarity. Your goal as a test-maker shouldn’t be to confuse, but to test!

 

We know that with these awesome tips from FactSumo, you’re on your way to creating some amazing multiple choice questions. Remember these simple rules and you’ll have happy students who are confident in any material you test them on! If you’re ever stuck on writing MC questions, think about these easy FactSumo tips!