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8/7/2018 10 Rules For Writing Multiple Choice Questions

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10 Rules For Writing Multiple Choice Questions


by Connie Malamed

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This is a back-to-basics article about the undervalued and little-discussed multiple


choice question. It’s not as exciting as discussing 3D virtual learning environments, but
it might be just as important. If you need to use tests, then you want to reduce the
errors that occur from poorly written items.

The rules covered here make tests more accurate, so the questions are interpreted as
intended and the answer options are clear and without hints. Just in case you’re not
familiar with multiple choice terminology, it’s explained in the visual below.

Here are the ten rules. If you have any others, please add them through the Comments
form below.

Rule #1: Test comprehension and critical thinking,


not just recall

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Multiple choice questions are criticized for testing the superficial recall of knowledge.
You can go beyond this by asking learners to interpret facts, evaluate situations, explain
cause and effect, make inferences, and predict results.

Rule #2: Use simple sentence structure and precise


wording
Write test questions in a simple structure that is easy to understand. And try to be as
accurate as possible in your word choices. Words can have many meanings depending
on colloquial usage and context.

Rule #3: Place most of the words in the question


stem
If you’re using a question stem, rather than an entire question, ensure that most of the
words are in the stem. This way, the answer options can be short, making them less
confusing and more legible.

Rule #4: Make all distractors plausible


All of the wrong answer choices should be completely reasonable. This can be very hard
to accomplish, but avoid throwing in those give-away distractors as it detracts from the
test’s validity. If you’re really stuck, get help from your friendly SME. (BTW, this word can
also be spelled as “distracter.”)

Rule #5: Keep all answer choices the same length


This can be difficult to achieve, but expert test-takers can use answer length as a hint to
the correct answer. Often the longest answer is the correct one. When I can’t get all four
answers to the same length, I use two short and two long.

Rule #6: Avoid double negatives


No big news here, right? Don’t use combinations of these words in the same question:
not, no, nor, the -un prefix, etc. For example, this type of question could confuse test-
takers: ‘Which of the following comments would NOT be unwelcome in a work
situation?’ Flip it around and write it in the positive form: ‘Which of the following
comments are acceptable in a work situation?’

Rule #7: Mix up the order of the correct answers


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Make sure that most of your correct answers aren’t in the “b” and “c” positions, which
can often happen. Keep correct answers in random positions and don’t let them fall into
a pattern that can be detected. When your test is written, go through and reorder where
the correct answers are placed, if necessary.

Rule #8: Keep the number of options consistent


Did you ever have to convince a SME that he or she can’t have answer choices that go to
‘h’ in one question and ‘c’ in the next? It’s something of a user interface issue. Making
the number of options consistent from question to question helps learners know what
to expect. Research doesn’t seem to agree on whether 3 or 4 or 5 options is best.
Personally, I like to use 4 options. It feels fair.

Rule #9: Avoid tricking test-takers


As faulty as they are, tests exist to measure knowledge. Never use questions or answer
options that could trick a learner. If a question or its options can be interpreted in two
ways or if the difference between options is too subtle, then find a way to rewrite it.

Rule #10: Use ‘All of the Above’ and ‘None of the


Above’ with caution
I hate this rule because when you run out of distractors, All of the Above and None of
the Above can come in handy. But they may not promote good instruction. Here’s why.
All of the Above can be an obvious give-away answer when it’s not used consistently.
Also, the All of the Above option can encourage guessing if the learner thinks one or two
answers are correct. In addition, the downside to None of the Above is that you can’t tell
if the learner really knew the correct answer.

Related Articles:

Writing Multiple Choice Questions for Higher Order Thinking


Are Your Online Tests Reliable?
Are Your Online Tests Valid?
Tips for Writing Matching Format Test Items

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Comments

Michael M says
March 23, 2010 at 5:23 pm

I’ve written some additional tips for ordering distrators and the key that do not
contribute unnecessarily to the wrong things.

Check out http://www.viral-notebook.com/wordpress/2009/05/06/increasing-cognitive-


load-part-2/

Connie Malamed says


March 23, 2010 at 7:47 pm

Thanks for the link Michael. I like your article.


Connie

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David Hopkins says


March 25, 2010 at 6:14 am

Excellent list, thanks for sharing this with us.

Regards, David.

Sarasota Joe says


April 1, 2010 at 11:39 pm

This is a helpful list, thanks. Many educators disagree with rule #8 though. Rule #4 takes
precedence: sometimes it’s best to throw in a question with two or three distractors
rather than come up with implausible distractors in the name of consistency.

I haven’t seen anyone split the difference here, but I will be bold enough to come up
with my own rule: Don’t have any questions with EXTRA distractors, but an occasional
question with FEWER distractors is better than forcing implausible distractors into a
question for the sake of uniformity. Studies show that having fewer distractors does not,
oddly enough, improve performance based on chance. You can create excellent
questions with two distractors.

Connie Malamed says


April 2, 2010 at 6:56 am

Hi Joe,
I do agree, it would be better to have an inconsistent number of distractors rather than
an implausible one. You know how rules are … Thanks for sharing your insight!
Connie

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Ganesh Maharjan says


October 23, 2010 at 10:30 am

Thanks for sharing this helpful list…….

pradeep kulkarni says


December 6, 2010 at 10:38 pm

good tips

ARG says
December 10, 2010 at 8:32 am

Very informative article.


Thanks for sharing it

Manuel says
May 29, 2011 at 11:03 pm

Merci. Votre travaille c’ést très bon.

Sucharita says
December 15, 2011 at 7:02 pm

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8/7/2018 10 Rules For Writing Multiple Choice Questions

Hey Connie,
Thank you for sharing these rules.
These will surely help me in my work!

Sue Lund says


January 16, 2012 at 8:39 am

Hi Connie,
I love your 10 rules! I will shortly be teaching colleagues enrolled on our staff
development course how to improve their question writing skills. I wonder if you would
mind if I use your ideas as a resource (with reference to you, of course) as a basis for
discussion in one of my face to face sessions? This would involve printing off copies to
use as a paper and pen exercise. Colleagues will then use the rules to help them design
their own computer based quizzes.
Many thanks for a great resource.

Connie Malamed says


January 18, 2012 at 7:26 am

Hi Sue,
Of course you can use the list. It’s there to help people. I hope your class goes well!
Connie

Ann Wederspahn says


June 21, 2012 at 7:06 pm
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An additional rule: Ensure that your question is at the correct level of difficulty. A SME
should be able to answer it with ease; naive learners should not be able to guess it
consistently. (I am currently reviewing an e-learning module done by a reputable
company and have been horrified at the exercise questions. Some are so obtuse no SME
could produce the answer, while others are at a level my nine-year-old could figure out!)

Connie Malamed says


June 21, 2012 at 10:29 pm

Hi Ann,
Great advice! It’s readers like you that add so much to this site. Thanks.
Best,
Connie

Bob Hagearty says


October 17, 2012 at 1:49 pm

Agree with #10. Lack of credible distractors leads you to AOTA. I feel you need some
questions with AOTA as a distractor. But one study showed that actually caused more
correct answers!

Connie Malamed says


October 17, 2012 at 2:14 pm

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In my opinion, tt does seem that if you use All of the above, you’d need to use it pretty
often. Otherwise, it’s obviously the correct answer in many cases. Better to use a
multiple selection multiple choice question, if your audience can handle that type of
interaction.

Alice Peterson says


October 23, 2012 at 7:39 am

Great pointers! Here’s my favorite. When considering which questions will be on the
test, refer back to your class objectives. If they were written according to Bloom’s
Taxonomy, then precise wording, appropriate skill level, and critical thinking will be that
much easier to build into your questions.

Connie Malamed says


October 23, 2012 at 7:58 am

Hi Alice,
Thanks, for reiterating an important point! Please come back and continue to add to the
conversation.

Connie

Bryan says
March 5, 2015 at 3:28 pm

Both reliability and validity are put into question if you don’t have the same amount of
options/distractors for each one. More distractors make it more difficult, fewer make it

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easier. There can be no argument about that-there must be consistency, otherwise what
is the point of testing?

Connie Malamed says


March 5, 2015 at 9:06 pm

Good points, Bryan.

Joseph O. Fehintola says


September 18, 2015 at 11:42 pm

Thanks, those points are actually germane and relevant to MCQ test.

Sarah clarke says


March 19, 2016 at 4:43 pm

Kahoot or socrative are good for creating multiple choice. I’m not keen on them as a
learning tool but AQA use multiple choice in A level business and economics papers. So
tend to use to prepare learners.

Connie Malamed says


March 20, 2016 at 8:50 am

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Thanks for sharing this information, Sarah.


Best,
Connie

Jeremy Curtis says


November 2, 2016 at 12:23 pm

Good afternoon! We are seeking your permission to include your 10 Rules For Writing
Multiple Choice Questions in a project we are undertaking.
The project is to develop and support implementation of a new qualification for the
Ministry of Education, Science and Technology in Kosovo. The qualification is Level 5
Certificate for Teaching Assistants for Special Needs Children.
We would acknowledge the resource materials, with web references for further detail
and information.
It would be really helpful to have your e-mail confirmation that we can use and
reference materials from your website if that is acceptable to you.
We look forward to hearing from you!

Connie Malamed says


November 2, 2016 at 6:37 pm

Of course, Jeremy. Thanks for asking and good luck on your project! It sounds very
important. Will send as an email too.
Connie

ranjini says
December 27, 2016 at 5:24 am

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8/7/2018 10 Rules For Writing Multiple Choice Questions

hi mam,

good article, but mam lot of another guide lines related to multiple choice questions. i
prepared a document about it. pls research your document.

Connie Malamed says


December 31, 2016 at 9:16 am

Hi Ranjini,
Yes, there are many other guidelines too. These were, in my estimation, the top ten. And
they were researched
Best,
Connie

ranjini says
January 2, 2017 at 12:49 am

Hi Madam,

No offence meant. My only opinion was that this article needs to be validated. Wishing
you a good day and a happy new year.

Ranjini.

Mohammad says
May 22, 2017 at 7:33 am

Connie, your article is good, but could be great if you would provide at least one couple
of examples for each rule. One poor and one better examples. Think about it.

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Connie Malamed says


June 1, 2017 at 7:24 pm

You’re right, Mohammad. I’m starting to write an eBook on this topic that will have lots
of examples. Thanks for your input.
Connie

Karen Canete says


September 3, 2017 at 11:17 am

May I ask you a question?


We have this task to create question under creating level of the revised Bloom’s
taxonomy. Now my question is, is it possible to create a multiple choice questions in
creating level? I’m really having a hard time trying to look for any sample multiple
choice questions under creating level.

Connie Malamed says


September 3, 2017 at 10:29 pm

Hi Karen,
In the real world, it does seem that a multiple choice question for “creating” is a bad fit
so I do not think the assignment is particularly meaningful. That said, the best I can
suggest is to simulate creation via a multiple choice question. For example, if the LO is
to create an innovative title for an article, you could say, “You must create a title for an
online magazine article. Select the title that stands out as one that will grab attention.”
Or if the LO is to create a design with effective use of white space, you could show three
designs, each with a rationale for why it is effective. Then the learner must select one.

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Also, see if this article about writing multiple choice questions for higher order thinking
gives you any ideas.
Good luck!
Connie

James Kennedy says


March 18, 2018 at 1:58 pm

I am looking at a “quiz qualifier” for some multiple choice tests where students can
explain a few of the answers they selected. This way, I can better assess their
knowledge. Any input on that? I have tried on a few quizzes and the students really
appreciate the opportunity.

Connie Malamed says


March 18, 2018 at 9:41 pm

That sounds awesome. I can see why students would like that. Since our goal is to help
learners gain mastery and competence, I don’t see why this wouldn’t be a good strategy.
Best,
Connie

Julie Wong says


April 26, 2018 at 10:14 pm

1. Do you put a “full stop” at the end of each option? I have been putting one at the end
of options which are complete sentences, but not when they are single words/phrases.
Is that correct?

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2. Do you use upper or lower case used for single word/phrase options, e.g.
a. Seventy
b. Seventy-five etc or

a. seventy
b. seventy-five

Connie Malamed says


May 1, 2018 at 9:31 am

Julie – I answered this a few days ago but I guess it didn’t save. It would be interesting to
ask these questions to a professional editor. I keep things consistent in punctuation and
within the options for each test, course, organization. Like you, I place a period at the
end of sentences. I also place a period at the end of the answer options for options that
are intended to complete a sentence. As to your #2, I typically use lower case for the
answer choices. I see that in SAT sample questions, they also use lower case. But I work
for many different clients and if their standard is upper case, I do that. I hope this helps.
Good question!

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to-basics article about the undervalued and little-discussed multiple choice question. It’s
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