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.

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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, or inference.

  • 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 choices.

  • 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 read.

  • 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 more efficient.

  • 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, instructors should:

    • 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 response options.

  • 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 problems 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 stem.

    • 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."

  • 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 options.

Review Checklist:

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Resource Links:

Writing Multiple-Choice Questions that Demand Critical Thinking (University of Oregon)

Multiple-Choice Item Construction (University of Calgary)


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Chatterji, M. (2003). Designing and using tools for educational assessment. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Gronlund, N. E. (2003). Assessment of student achievement (7th ed.). 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 (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Popham, W. J. (2000). Modern educational measurement: Practical guidelines for educational leaders (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Trice, A. D. (2000). A handbook of classroom assessment. New York, NY: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.


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