10 Rules For Writing Multiple Choice Questions

This is a back-to-basics article about the undervalued and little-discussed multiple choice question. It’s not as exciting as discussing 3D virtual learning environments, but it might be just as important. If you need to use tests, then you want to reduce the errors that occur from poorly written items.

The rules covered here make tests more accurate, so the questions are interpreted as intended and the answer options are clear and without hints. Just in case you’re not familiar with multiple choice terminology, it’s explained in the visual below.

Here are the ten rules. If you have any others, please add them through the Comments form below.

Rule #1: Test comprehension and critical thinking, not just recall

Multiple choice questions are criticized for testing the superficial recall of knowledge. You can go beyond this by asking learners to interpret facts, evaluate situations, explain cause and effect, make inferences, and predict results.

Rule #2: Use simple sentence structure and precise wording

Write test questions in a simple structure that is easy to understand. And try to be as accurate as possible in your word choices. Words can have many meanings depending on colloquial usage and context.

Rule #3: Place most of the words in the question stem

If you’re using a question stem, rather than an entire question, ensure that most of the words are in the stem. This way, the answer options can be short, making them less confusing and more legible.

Rule #4: Make all distractors plausible

All of the wrong answer choices should be completely reasonable. This can be very hard to accomplish, but avoid throwing in those give-away distractors as it detracts from the test’s validity. If you’re really stuck, get help from your friendly SME. (BTW, this word can also be spelled as “distracter.”)

Rule #5: Keep all answer choices the same length

This can be difficult to achieve, but expert test-takers can use answer length as a hint to the correct answer. Often the longest answer is the correct one. When I can’t get all four answers to the same length, I use two short and two long.

Rule #6: Avoid double negatives

No big news here, right? Don’t use combinations of these words in the same question: not, no, nor, the -un prefix, etc. For example, this type of question could confuse test-takers: ‘Which of the following comments would NOT be unwelcome in a work situation?’ Flip it around and write it in the positive form: ‘Which of the following comments are acceptable in a work situation?’

Rule #7: Mix up the order of the correct answers

Make sure that most of your correct answers aren’t in the “b” and “c” positions, which can often happen. Keep correct answers in random positions and don’t let them fall into a pattern that can be detected. When your test is written, go through and reorder where the correct answers are placed, if necessary.

Rule #8: Keep the number of options consistent

Did you ever have to convince a SME that he or she can’t have answer choices that go to ‘h’ in one question and ‘c’ in the next? It’s something of a user interface issue. Making the number of options consistent from question to question helps learners know what to expect. Research doesn’t seem to agree on whether 3 or 4 or 5 options is best. Personally, I like to use 4 options. It feels fair.

Rule #9: Avoid tricking test-takers

As faulty as they are, tests exist to measure knowledge. Never use questions or answer options that could trick a learner. If a question or its options can be interpreted in two ways or if the difference between options is too subtle, then find a way to rewrite it.

Rule #10: Use ‘All of the Above’ and ‘None of the Above’ with caution

I hate this rule because when you run out of distractors, All of the Above and None of the Above can come in handy. But they may not promote good instruction. Here’s why. All of the Above can be an obvious give-away answer when it’s not used consistently. Also, the All of the Above option can encourage guessing if the learner thinks one or two answers are correct. In addition, the downside to None of the Above is that you can’t tell if the learner really knew the correct answer.

Related Articles:

Writing Multiple Choice Questions for Higher Order Thinking
Are Your Online Tests Reliable?

Are Your Online Tests Valid?
Tips for Writing Matching Format Test Items


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Comments

  1. Sarasota Joe says

    This is a helpful list, thanks. Many educators disagree with rule #8 though. Rule #4 takes precedence: sometimes it’s best to throw in a question with two or three distractors rather than come up with implausible distractors in the name of consistency.

    I haven’t seen anyone split the difference here, but I will be bold enough to come up with my own rule: Don’t have any questions with EXTRA distractors, but an occasional question with FEWER distractors is better than forcing implausible distractors into a question for the sake of uniformity. Studies show that having fewer distractors does not, oddly enough, improve performance based on chance. You can create excellent questions with two distractors.

  2. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Joe,
    I do agree, it would be better to have an inconsistent number of distractors rather than an implausible one. You know how rules are … Thanks for sharing your insight!
    Connie

  3. Sue Lund says

    Hi Connie,
    I love your 10 rules! I will shortly be teaching colleagues enrolled on our staff development course how to improve their question writing skills. I wonder if you would mind if I use your ideas as a resource (with reference to you, of course) as a basis for discussion in one of my face to face sessions? This would involve printing off copies to use as a paper and pen exercise. Colleagues will then use the rules to help them design their own computer based quizzes.
    Many thanks for a great resource.

  4. Ann Wederspahn says

    An additional rule: Ensure that your question is at the correct level of difficulty. A SME should be able to answer it with ease; naive learners should not be able to guess it consistently. (I am currently reviewing an e-learning module done by a reputable company and have been horrified at the exercise questions. Some are so obtuse no SME could produce the answer, while others are at a level my nine-year-old could figure out!)

  5. Bob Hagearty says

    Agree with #10. Lack of credible distractors leads you to AOTA. I feel you need some questions with AOTA as a distractor. But one study showed that actually caused more correct answers!

  6. Connie Malamed says

    In my opinion, tt does seem that if you use All of the above, you’d need to use it pretty often. Otherwise, it’s obviously the correct answer in many cases. Better to use a multiple selection multiple choice question, if your audience can handle that type of interaction.

  7. Alice Peterson says

    Great pointers! Here’s my favorite. When considering which questions will be on the test, refer back to your class objectives. If they were written according to Bloom’s Taxonomy, then precise wording, appropriate skill level, and critical thinking will be that much easier to build into your questions.

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