Ten Essential Rules for Creating Multi-Choice Questions

This article covers the basic rules for creating multiple-choice test questions. These types of tests are often undervalued and not often discussed, partly because they are less exciting than some learning and test techniques such as 3-D learning methods. If your work requires you to use test materials, then it is best to reduce or eliminate the errors that can arise from badly-written test questions.

The writing rules listed in this article are designed to ensure tests are more precise. The aim is to end up with questions that are understood as they were intended and that the answer choices are clearly-written without providing hints. And, in case you are not very familiar with the terminology that goes with multi-choice questions, this is also explained below.

How Multiple-Choice Questions are Made Up

  1. The question’s ‘stem.’
  2. A number of optional answers.

Here is a sample question and some possible answers:

“The abbreviation ‘ISD’ stands for which of the following:

Irregular System Design

  • Instructor’s Systematic Design
  • Instructional Systems Design
  • Irrelevant System Design

In this sample, a), b), c) and d) are the answer options, while a), b), and d) are distractors and c) is the right answer.

The following are ten important rules. If there are any others you would like to add, please use the comments form on EssaysLeader.com’s website.

  • Questions designed to test critical thinking skills and comprehension rather than merely recall

Sometimes, multi-choice questions attract criticism for testing nothing more than superficial knowledge recall. It is possible to go deeper by asking students to evaluate events or situations, interpret concepts and/or facts, analyze causes and effects, predict outcomes, and draw inferences.

  • The majority of words should be placed in the stem of the question

If your preference is to use a stem – as opposed to a whole question – make sure you put most words in the question’s stem. This will allow you make answer choices shorter, thereby rendering them easier to read with less room for confusion.

  • Use precise words and make the structure of sentences simple

The structure of test or exam questions should be simple so that each one can be easily understood. Do your best to be as accurate as you possibly can be. Different words can mean different things depending on their context and how they are used colloquially.

  • Make answer options a similar length

Although this is not necessarily easy, those who are accustomed to taking tests can get clues to the right answer from the length. Frequently, the right answer is the longest one. If you cannot make all answers a similar length, try to write two long answers and two short ones.

  • Do your best to make distractors sound plausible

Incorrect answer options should seem believable. While this can be difficult, it is best not to throw in obvious distractors (also spelled ‘distracters’) because this reduces the validity of a test.

  • The order of correct answer options should be mixed up

Try to ensure the majority of correct answer options are not, say, ‘a’ or ‘b.’ This happens frequently. Spread correct answer options in random order and do not allow them to form a detectable pattern. When you have written a test, go back and do some reordering if needs be.

  • Double negatives should be avoided

This should not sound like news! Words like “no,” “not” and “nor” should not be combined in sentences, nor with “un” prefixes. The following question could, for instance, cause confusion for test-takers: “which of these situations would not be unpleasant to a workforce?’ Turn it around to its positive version e.g. “which of these situations would be pleasant to a workforce?’

  • Try not to trick those taking your test

While they may have their faults, the purpose of a test is to evaluate knowledge. So, do not use questions or answer choices that could trick a test taker. If a question or answer option is in any way ambiguous, revise it.

  • Be cautious when using “All” or “None” as an answer option

A lot of test writers do not like this particular rule because they find ‘ALL or NONE of the above’ useful when they run short of distractor ideas. However, these do not necessarily help learning. For example, if it is not used in a consistent manner ‘all the above’ can be a throwaway answer. This option can additionally promote guesswork where a test-taker feels one or more answer is right. A further problem with the answer ‘none’ is that you cannot judge if the student really does know the right answer.

  • Use a consistent number of answer options

Having answer options that go to ‘i’ for one set of questions and only to ‘d’ in the next can leave the test-taker not knowing what to expect and it can create a user-interface problem. Studies cannot seem to agree on whether or not it is best to have three, four or five answer options. However, many believe that four options is a fair and realistic number.

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