Effective Multiple-Choice Items
Multiple-choice items are the most common type of selected-response item utilized for both standardized and classroom achievement tests. Multiple-choice items consist of two parts: a stem and various response options. The stem provides introductory information and may take the form of either a direct question or an incomplete statement. The response options follow the stem and contain one correct answer and several incorrect response options; these incorrect options are called distracters. Multiple-choice items are widely used due to their versatility in assessing a range of learning objectives; well constructed multiple-choice questions can target factual knowledge, comprehension, analysis, synthesis, or evaluation. In addition, the objective nature of multiple-choice items ensures reliable, efficient scoring. While there are many benefits to utilizing multiple-choice items, there are also limitations. Specifically, multiple-choice items are not effective for measuring the ability to organize or express ideas, formulate arguments, or demonstrate novel thought. With these concerns in mind, instructors must examine their specific educational goals when selecting the most appropriate assessment.
|Allows for assessment of a wide range of learning objectives from factual
to evaluative understanding
||Quality items are difficult and time consuming to develop
|May provide diagnostic information by analyzing patterns of incorrect
||Tendency for items to focus on low level learning objectives
|Permits wide sampling and broad coverage of content domain due to students¬'
ability to respond to many items
||Assessment results may be biased by students¬' reading ability and test-wiseness
|Allows the comparison and evaluation of related ideas, concepts, or theories
||May overestimate learning due to the ability to utilize an elimination
process for answer selection
|Permits manipulation of difficulty level by adjusting the degree of similarity
among response options
||Does not measure the ability to organize and express ideas
|Amenable to item analysis
||Generally does not provide effective feedback to correct errors in understanding
|Objective nature limits bias in scoring
|Easily administered to large numbers of students
|Efficient to score either manually or via automatic means
|Limits assessment bias caused by poor writing skills
|Less influenced by guessing than true-false items
General Tips for Writing Multiple-Choice Items:
- All multiple-choice items should match relevant instructional objectives.
With this in mind, ensure that items target significant facts or concepts,
not trivial questions or overly specific details.
- Use clear, precise and simple language in both the stem and response options
so that the wording of items does not influence students' ability to demonstrate
what they know. A quality multiple-choice item only includes language that
is necessary to present the problem or question.
- In general, it is preferable to avoid opinion items. If you are interested
in assessing students¬' understanding of a specific opinion, specify the source
of the opinion.
- Each item should have only one correct response. When developing items,
direct students to select either the "correct"answer
or the "best"answer. "Correct" answer
directions work best for measuring factual knowledge, while "best" answer
directions are well suited for items dealing with interpretation, understanding,
- Place response options in a logical order (chronological, numerical, etc.)
if there is one. This format assists in reading and reviewing various options
during the selection process.
- To reduce the bias of test-wiseness, use each response option as the correct
answer an equivalent number of times. In addition, be sure to randomize the
order of correct responses.
- Ensure items are not interdependent; the information in one item should
not supply the answer to another.
- Prevent bias in the assessment by avoiding items that contain irrelevant
cues or require skills and knowledge unrelated to the learning objectives.
- Include three to five response options in each multiple-choice item. If
there are less than three response options, consider utilizing an alternate
item type; if there are more than five response options, eliminate unnecessary
- To facilitate reading and efficiency of testing, present response options
in a vertical list following the stem.
Guidelines for Writing Stems:
- Items may be written as either direct questions or incomplete statements.
When possible, a direct question is preferable as it is generally easier to
- Each stem should represent a complete thought and be written as a coherent
sentence. To ensure accuracy of the assessment, each stem should target a
singular, independent point or objective.
- Include the bulk of the content and information in the stem rather than
the response options. This format makes reading and responding to the item
- To reduce redundancy, the stem should include any words that would be repeated
in each response option.
- Be sure that each stem contains sufficient information to correctly answer
the question. Use one or two introductory sentences in the stem when this
information enhances the clarity and specificity of the item.
- When utilizing an incomplete statement, place blanks at the end rather than
the beginning or middle of the stem.
- Avoid using direct textbook quotations, stereotyped language, or overly
scientific terminology. Writing in this style may give subtle hints to the
correct answer, thus undermining the accuracy of the assessment.
- Try to restrict the use of negatives in the stem as this wording can produce
bias in responding and complicate students' reasoning. When negatives are
necessary, highlight them (bold, underline, capital letters) to draw students
attention to the shift in focus.
Guidelines for Writing Response Options:
- Utilize direct and clear terminology in all response options. When response
options contain unnecessary, irrelevant, or scientific verbiage, the assessment
may place unintended emphasis on reading comprehension.
- Ensure that distracters are plausible and equally attractive to students
who do not know the correct response. In order to improve the quality of distracters,
- Write distracters using terminology related to the correct answer.
- Identify a class of information specific to the correct answer, then
write distracters based on members of that class of information.
- Utilize statements that are true but unrelated to the stem as distracter
- When possible, avoid "all of the above" or "none of the above" response
options as students may correctly answer the question (by either identifying
or eliminating just one of the response options) based on limited understanding
of the content information. In addition, if the stem instructs students to
select the "best" answer, do not include "none of the above" or "all of the
above" as response options as these statements are not congruent with the
demands of the stem.
- One of the biggest problem in writing response options is that the wording
or format of distracters may introduce bias that favors students who are test-wise.
To write good response options that do not provide irrelevant clues to the
correct answer, instructors should:
- Ensure that all response options are grammatically consistent with the
- Make all response options equivalent in length, style, and structure.
- Avoid repeating key words from the stem in the correct response option.
- Utilize novel terminology, rather than direct textbook verbiage, to
explain key concepts or ideas.
- Avoid using absolute terminology (always, never, etc.).
Ideas to Enhance the Effectiveness of Multiple-Choice Items:
- Utilize terminology that promotes the assessment of higher order learning
objectives. For example, to assess understanding and interpretation rather
than factual or comprehensive knowledge, include questions that ask "how,"
"why," or "which" as opposed to "who," "when," or "where."
- For some examples on how to write higher order objective items, see:
- In order to promote the integration of related concepts, present items in
analogy format. This activity requires students to go beyond simple recognition
to identify the relationship between two ideas in various contexts.
- To assess students¬' ability to understand potential outcomes of a given
theory or idea, provide a hypothetical premise and require students to select
from various consequences.
- Promote evaluation and synthesis skills by presenting students with a problem
and a possible solution. Then, require students to evaluate the solution based
upon criteria provided and indicate their evaluation via a range of response
||Is a multiple-choice item an appropriate assessment of the learning objective?
||Does the content of the multiple-choice item measure knowledge appropriate
to the desired learning goal?
||Is the wording in both the stem and response options clear and direct?
||Is positive wording utilized in the stem?
||Is the majority of the content and information located in the stem?
||Are all response options equivalent in length, style, format, and grammatical
||Is one response option clearly correct?
||Are all distracters plausible to an uninformed student?
||Are "all of the above" and "none of the above" used with caution?
||Does the correct response option randomly vary in location?
||Are response options listed in a vertical row below the stem?
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Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
- Chatterji, M. (2003). Designing and Using Tools for Educational Assessment.
Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
- Gronlund, N. E. (2003). Assessment of Student Achievement (7thEdition).
Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
- Johnson, D. W. & Johnson, R. T. (2002). Meaningful Assessment: A Manageable
and Cooperative Process. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
- McKeachie, W. J. (1999). Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory
for College and University Teachers (10thEdition). Boston, MA:
Houghton Mifflin Company.
- Popham, W. J. (2000). Modern Educational Measurement: Practical Guidelines
for Educational Leaders (3rdEdition). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
- Trice, A. D. (2000). A Handbook of Classroom Assessment. New York: Addison
Wesley Longman, Inc.
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