Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs) can empower students as self-regulated learners, as long as time is taken into planning, writing and managing the MCQs. They are not only a tool for assessment, but also for learning, revision and feedback.
Where time is spent creating effective questions and distractors, time is saved through automated marking and easy-to-access test analytics. However, MCQs are not always suitable and each situation needs to be assessed to work out if an MCQ would help students reach the intended learning outcomes.
A range of cognitive levels can be tested (recall, apply and evaluate), but is always important to link the questions to the desired learning outcomes. However, fact recall questions can be easily searchable.
Some ways to reduce searchability can include:
- Use a novel context (hypothetical scenarios can work well)
- Use common mistakes & misconceptions as distractors
- Multiple select (1 or 2 correct)
- Shift the focus from recall questions to application-style questions
On the other hand embracing open book exams for what they are and having searchable questions can test a variety other skills of students. Searching can also act as a hindrance and distraction.
Constructing questions and distractors
Planning and designing the questions is one of the most important part of using MCQs. Both the questions and distractors should be constructed effectively.
- Make the stem meaningful on its own – ask a question which directs the student to the learning outcome, where you need to have some knowledge to understand the question.
- Don’t include irrelevant material – make sure other text in the question is vital (e.g. adds context).
- Use negative phrasing carefully – double negatives and using negative phrasing can confuse students and distract from the learning of the MCQ.
- All of the distractors should be plausible - The distractors aren’t functional if they are not plausible, as students who don’t understand the learning outcomes can still be rewarded. Use common student errors – these make the best distractors.
- All of the distractors should be clear and concise - Students who know the correct answer should not have to worry about unclear and wordy answers and grasping what the answer is actually trying to say.
- Make sure they are mutually exclusive - A ‘trick’ question can sometimes lead to multiple answers being correct. Don’t have this ambiguity – make the answers mutually exclusive.
- They should have no clues to the correct answer - Savvy test takers can spot clues to correct answers such as differences in grammar, length, formatting, and language choice.
Pitfalls to avoid
If you have a question bank which you often refer back to, try to manage this effectively. Use this checklist of pitfalls to avoid to identify any points of improvement:
- Does it contain superfluous information?
- Are the question stems unfocused or not meaningful on their own?
- Is there unimportant content/minutia?
- Are there negative stem or answer options? (if necessary, be clear to emphasise the negative element “Which of this is NOT…”)
- Are the options confusingly ordered?
- Do you have absolute terms (easy to dismiss) or vague terms (open to interpretation)?
- Are there any grammatical or other clues to the correct answer?
- Unequal option lengths?
- Do you have “All/none of the above” options? (e.g. trivial if 2+ match)
- Are there logical clues? (avoid mutually exclusive pair options)
- Are there convergent options – correct answer has similarities with others?
- Faculty of Science: Writing Effective Multiple Choice Questions Workshop (Recording of presentation, Download slides)
- MCQs for self-regulated learning and feedback - D. J. Nicol & D. Macfarlane‐Dick (2006)
- Information on Bloom’s Taxonomy by Vanderbilt University
- Perspective article on applying Bloom’s Taxonomy to MCQs – Zaidi et al. (2018)
- Writing Good Multiple Choice Test Questions – Brame, C (2013)
- Pitfalls to avoid when writing MCQs - Webb et al. (2015)