Beginners’ guide to multiple-choice questions

These are the absolute basic basics of how a “choose-one” type multiple choice question works, for new authors. Here is a typical question:

The components are: the STEM (question); typically 4 OPTIONS (aka FOILS), comprising the KEY (the right answer) and 3 DISTRACTORS (the wrong answers).

The stem (question). Make sure you are asking just one question, and are being precise in what you ask. Ask in positives! You will get much higher rates of comprehension if you ask “what is” rather than “what is not” questions, and this leads to greater reliability of your summative assessment. A good stem is typically 5-25 words.

The options (foils). All the options should be short: 1-10 words. 5 words or fewer is ideal. This is not the place for long explanations of teaching points. Let motorway roadsigns be your inspiration – maximum clarity, minimum text, designed for instant comprehension.

The key (the right answer). It’s a dead giveaway if you let the key be longer than the distractors. This is not the place to start explaining something!

The distractors. Keep them plausible. They are there to trap the unwary, not out of spite, but because this allows you to discover who has understood the content and who not.

Some principles you should think about

Wrong answers vs. random answers.
In all types of multiple choice, there is an element of luck. A student who cannot work out the correct answer will click one at random. If there are 4 options, then the chance of clicking the correct one is 1/4 or 25%. Bear this in mind when looking at analytics! 25% does not mean that a quarter of the students understand the material. It means none of them have a clue.

The ideal average mark
The function of a summative assessment is to help you distinguish between strong and weak students. A question that they all get right, or a question that 75% get wrong (and the rest just got lucky) fails to do this. You will get the most information if the average mark of the cohort is half way between the maximum and random percentages. For 4-option multiple choices, that’s 62.5%. You can work out the requirements for other numbers of options quite easily. Rule of thumb: if a question is getting 55-75% then you are in the zone.

Things to avoid

  • Silly distractors. Yes, they might make students laugh, but they undermine the summative function of the question. If you can’t think of plausible distractors, just have fewer of them.
  • Writing a key that is longer than the distractors. It’s so common! Try this: pick a quiz at random and go through it always choosing the longest option. You will probably get a pretty good mark. Students know this. Do not be the author of that quiz!
  • Trying to teach a point in the key or the options. Keep them short, or you will undermine their summative function, especially for slower readers. Teaching points go in the feedback.

Important stuff I’ve not covered here

  • Writing feedback
  • Images
  • Matching the ability levels of students
  • Other types of multiple choice question


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