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Practical Suggestions for Writing Multiple-Choice Questions

General Suggestions

  1. Do not write the test in one day. Spread the work out over time. Questions demanding high-level thinking take longer to craft-professional item writers often write only 3 or 4 per day. Write one or two questions after each class, so it becomes a simple matter of assembling them into an exam. Some teachers keep a rubber-banded stack of note cards in their desk for this purpose.
  2. If students are to hand-write the letters of their chosen answers, ask them to use CAPITAL LETTERS. The handwritten, lower-case letters "a" and "d" and "c" and "e" can be difficult to distinguish when scoring.


Writing the Stem

  1. Phrase stems as clearly as possible-confusing questions can generate wrong answers from students who do understand the material.
    For example, a confusing stem like: "According to Tuckman's model, groups develop through several stages over time. Furthermore, it contradicts Poole's activity-track model which has groups switching among several different linear sequences. Which of the following is not one of the stages identified in Tuckman's model?"
    could be cleaned up to read: "Tuckman's model of group development includes: [Select all that apply]
  2. Avoid extra language in the stem. Some think extraneous details make a question more complex. However, they most often just add to the students' reading time. This reduces the number of questions you can put on a test, therefore reducing the reliability of the test. For example, in the Tuckman question above, the information on Poole's model had nothing to do with the information sought by the question.
  3. Include any language in the stem that you would have to repeat in each answer option. For example, a stem such as "Biology is defined as the scientific study of:" keeps you from having to repeat "is the scientific study of" at the beginning of each option.


Answer Options

  1. Avoid lifting phrases directly from text or lecture. This becomes a simple recall activity for the student. Use new language as frequently as possible.
  2. Most literature recommends writing the correct answer before writing the distracters. This makes sure you pay enough attention to formulating the one clearly correct answer.
  3. Answer options should be about the same length and parallel in grammatical structure. Too much detail or different grammatical structure can give the answer away.

    For example, the specificity and grammatical structure of the first option here are dead give-aways:

    The term "side effect" of a drug:

    a) refers to any action of a drug in the body other than the one the doctor wanted to drug to have.
    b) is the chain effect of a drug.
    c) additionally benefits the drug.

  4. Limit the number of answer options. Research shows that three-choice items are about as effective as four-choice items. Four choice items are the most popular, and never give more than five alternatives.
  5. Distracters must be incorrect, but plausible. If you can, include among the distracters options that contain common errors. Students will then be motivated to listen to your explanations of why those options are incorrect.
  6. To make distracters more plausible, use words that should be familiar to students.
  7. If a recognizable key word appears in the correct answer, it should appear in some or all of the distracters as well. Don't let a verbal clue decrease the accuracy of your exam.

    For example, someone with no biology background would not have to think very hard to make a correct guess on this question:

    Every organism is made of cells and every cell comes from another cell. This is the:

    a) Relativity Theory
    b) Evolution Theory
    c) Heat Theory
    d) Cell Theory

  8. Help students see crucial words in the question. For example: "Which of the following is NOT an explicit norm?" Likewise, when you ask a similarly-worded question about two different things, always highlight the difference between the questions.
  9. It is often difficult to come up with 3 or 4 plausible distracters, and teachers will sometimes add some that are not plausible, or even humorous. Be careful. If it is too easy to eliminate one or two options, then the question loses much of its measurement value. If energy or time is limited and you must come up with one more distracter, consider either offering a true statement that does not answer the question and/or a jargon-ridden option that is meaningless to someone who understands the concept.
  10. Use Rarely:
    • Extreme words like "all," "always" and "never" (generally a wrong answer).
    • Vague words or phrases like "usually," "typically" and "may be" (generally a correct answer).
    • "All of the above" - eliminating one distracter immediately eliminates this, too.
    • "None of the above" - use only when the correct answer can be absolutely correct, such as in math, grammar, historical dates, geography, etc.. Do not use with negatively-stated stems, as the resulting double-negative is confusing. Studies do show that using "None of the above" does make a question more difficult, and is a better choice when the alternative is a weak distracter.