Writing Multiple Choice Questions

Multiple choice questions—also known as fixed choice or selected response items—require students to identify right answers from among a set of possible options that are presented to them. Possible answers are "fixed" in advance rather than left open for the learner to generate or supply.

The advantage of these items is that they can be scored rapidly, providing quick feedback to students and enabling efficient ways to assess large numbers of students over a broad range of content. One drawback is that constructing good multiple-choice items takes time, especially if you are writing questions to test higher order thinking.

Best Practices

To create valid multiple-choice items, make sure you can answer Yes to these questions:

  • Is it reasonable to expect that the students have the prior knowledge needed to respond to the item?
  • Does the item address an important concept that students should have learned from instruction?
  • Is the item stated clearly, using the appropriate vocabulary for the students?
  • Is the level of thinking addressed by the item appropriate for the:
    • content addressed?
    • level of the student on the novice to expert continuum?
    • learning outcomes of the course?

The following tips can help you create multiple choice items that most effectively measure student learning.

General Suggestions

  • Write the prompt first, then the correct answer, then the distractors (incorrect options)
  • Make sure distractors match the correct answer in terms of length, complexity, phrasing,  style
  • Base each item on a learning outcome for the course
  • Ask a peer to review items if possible
  • Allow time for editing and revising
  • Minimize the amount of reading required for each item
  • Be sensitive to cultural and gender issues
  • Keep vocabulary consistent with student level of understanding
  • Avoid convoluted stems and options
  • Avoid language in the options and stems that clues the correct answer
  • Write a few items each day, and then assemble them just before the test.

Tips for Writing Multiple-Choice Item Stems

  • Use a single, clearly-stated problem or question.
  • Describe the problem fully and avoid irrelevant information.
  • Include most information in the stem so that the options can be short.
  • State the stem as a question, or as an incomplete statement if needed to avoid awkward wording.
  • Be as brief as possible and avoid undue complexity.
  • Avoid negatives when possible, as well as idioms (e.g., “toss-up” or “nest-egg”), passive voice, and absolutes (e.g., always, never, all, etc.).
  • When making the stem an incomplete statement, make sure the options follow the stem in a grammatically correct manner.

Tips for Writing Multiple-Choice Answer Options

  • Include a total of 3 to 5 options.
  • Make options similar in grammar, length, complexity, and style.
  • Move repeated text to the stem if possible.
  • Write the correct answer first, and then write the incorrect options in a parallel style.
  • Make all options plausible to students who do not know the correct answer.
  • Decrease the possibility of students guessing by avoiding options such as “all of the above” or “both A and B.”
  • Use “none of the above” with caution, and only when there are absolutely correct answers to the question so that none of the available options are partially correct.
  • Vary the positions of the correct options.
  • Make sure there is only one best or correct answer.