Creating fair and easy to understand multiple choice tests is an often-overlooked art.
I remember my first-year psych professor wrote the most interesting and well written multiple-choice questions I’d ever seen. He knew how to write questions that tested learners’ recall, ability to analyze, and application of knowledge. He tested both the lower and middle levels of the cognitive domain in a fun and challenging test.
He often had questions that contained a situation and then listed possible solutions to the problem. This meant that learners had to recognize (recall) the terms and also be able to apply their knowledge of the subject.
Multiple choice tests provide objective results and are quick to mark; however, they are difficult to create.
Multiple choice questions have two parts. The stem is the question or statement that the learner must answer from a list of choices. Incorrect choices are called distractors because their job is to distract the learner away from the correct answer.
Below are five tips to creating good stems followed by five tips for creating good distractors.
- Write clear, short stems that provide all the relevant information to answer question. Convoluted and long stems can easily confuse learners. Stems should be short and to the point, but statement or question must provide all the appropriate information to answer the questions. The instructor is often the subject matter expert and often includes extraneous information. To make sure the stem contains all the information, ask a former student or other faculty member to review both the stems and distractors.
- Avoid using negative wording, which easily confuses the learner. It is often easier for the learner to state what he or she knows, rather than what he or she doesn’t know.
- Ensure the stem is grammatically correct with the list of distractors. Check for singular and plural agreements and ensure the subject-verb agreement is correct. It is easy for learners to narrow down the distractors to ones that are grammatically correct
- Do not ask questions that depend on a correct answer from a previous question. All questions should be independent of each other.
- Ensure that all questions, both the stem and the distractors, do not give clues to the correct answers of another question.
- I write the list of possible answers is either alphabetical or numerical order. This eliminates the supposed third choice is usually the correct answer. It also eliminates subconsciously never putting the correct answer in the first and last positions, which is a tendency of many instructors.
- Provide three or four possible answers. I tend to use provide three distractors and the correct answer.
- Provide plausible distractors. My first-year psych professor didn’t always do that, though. He often put in a distractor that was quite funny when compared to the question. It may have annoyed some learners, but I found that it lightened the situation; however, he tended to do that for the tougher questions.
- “None of the above” and “all of the above” distractors are a lazy way out for coming up with good distractors. Sometimes the process of elimination can easily lead the learner to the correct answer.
- The distractors and the correct answer should all be approximately the same length with the same amount of detail. If all the distractors are two words long and the correct answer is six words long, the longer, more detailed answer is probably correct.
Finally, I never give multiple choice tests that penalize students for giving an incorrect answer. I believe this is unfair to learners who have used partial knowledge to eliminate one or two distractors.
Negative marking adds more pressure to the learners. Is it better to guess between to possible correct answers and guess wrong and receive a negative mark or not answer and not be penalized?
Finally, negative marking discourages students and removes the marks they have already accumulated for correct answers.