The fine art of the multiple-choice question

Multiple choice questions are a key part of teaching and assessing in US curriculum schools. Tod Brennan tells us how he does it well

Tod Brennan

Multiple choice

It’s 2003 and I’m just about to take my GCSE physics exam.

I’ve barely revised and what little I did was in fact just reading a revision guide while watching first division Argentinian football at 4am. It won't surprise you to learn I didn't feel confident. 

“Don’t worry,” says the well-meaning Hermione Grainger of my form group. “Most of the exam is multiple choice.”

I give a heavy sigh of relief and then wander into the exam hall, reassured that this will be the easiest exam of my life.

Fast forward to results day and Hermione is crying that she didn’t get an A* in all her subjects. Meanwhile, I’m looking at my science results in a state of utter bewilderment as I stare at my awful score for the "easiest exam of my life".

The truth is, there is a real challenge to a well-phrased multiple-choice question (MCQ). Much maligned for many years, the humble MCQ, when done right, is an amazing weapon in a teacher’s arsenal.

And yes, when done badly, they are little more than a time-filling exercise – but couldn’t we say that about any useful strategy?

What can you use MCQs for?

MCQs are widely used in the US curriculum for both formative and summative assessment. Well-designed MCQs save time in the long term because they highlight misconceptions and show you exactly what students know and don’t know.

How do you make multiple-choice quizzes?

The hard work is put into designing your quizzes. You shouldn't think of them as something you can just knock out in one go.

The first year you make them, you should really spend two or three hours per set then in the lesson, type up your explanation as to why certain answers are wrong or right.

The following year, you simply present the quiz and the explanation after the quiz. Obviously, the difficult part is in making sure that you craft the best question stem and options you possibly can.

 

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How to construct a winning multiple-choice question

A good multiple-choice question should not simply be a guide to the right answer. For example:

What is the capital city of Scotland?

  1. Paris
  2. London
  3. Edinburgh

A good multiple-choice question should use several high-quality 'distractors' (potentially correct options).

What makes a choice a good distractor?

In order to create a good distractor, you need to know the common misconceptions of that topic and the common misconceptions of your class.

Creating quizzes with quality distractors involves integrating excellent subject knowledge with knowledge of your students’ previous performance.

It also, to some extent, involves experience of having taught the subject matter previously, for new or returning teachers this might require you to lean on your experienced colleagues for information about misunderstandings students have had in previous years in order to create great distractors.

However, selecting a good distractor might be something as simple as selecting a word with a similar sound to the right answer. Selecting an option like this will undoubtedly give your students the chance to hardwire the right answer and distinguish between the deltoid and rhomboid muscles, for example.

A good distractor should be appealing and plausible...but ultimately wrong.

What is the magic number?

You will also want to use five to eight options per question, depending on the complexity of the question. The simple reason for this is that the greater number of options you give, the greater the validity of the question.

Having more than two or four options eliminates the potential for guesswork. A common complaint about MCQs by those who have only ever seen them used badly is that students can do better than they should by simply guessing.

When there are only four options, students have a 25% chance of guessing. But with six options, that’s reduced to 16.6%.

Obviously, the creation of more options may incur a slight motivation cost for both teacher and student. However, I believe the long-term benefit to unpicking misconceptions is certainly worth that little extra effect.

Picking all the Cs

Another supposed problem with multiple-choice quizzes is the use of a common correct answer. A problem which gave birth to every exam blagger’s favourite phrase: "The answer is always C."

In reality, guessing C for every answer in a high-quality exam such as the American SATs would only give you a score of 25-30 per cent most years. However, in some internal exams I’ve seen students could have achieved up to 50-60 per cent with this strategy.

Don’t fall foul of this common error. Instead, spread the answers as evenly as you possibly can. If you have five options across 20 questions, ‘A’ should be correct four or five times, but probably not six times – certainly not seven.

Resist the temptation

Many people are in the habit of using ‘all of the above’ or ‘both A and B’ as an option in their quiz. If you must use ‘all of the above’, use it on occasions when ‘all of the above’ isn’t the answer, as well as when it is the answer.

The same applies for ‘both A and B’ as an option, which should always be paired with ‘both C and D’, or similar. I would strongly advise that teachers use these sparingly.

Why? Well, I see them used often and, in general, they are only used when correct and you will inadvertently guide students to the correct answers.

The MCQ golden rules:

Rules for designing rigorous MCQs:

  • Six to eight options per question.
  • Two distractors per question.
  • Distractors must be close to the correct answer or tease out a misconception
  • Change the placement of the correct answer.
  • Use the ‘all’/both’ type options sparingly, if at all.

The below example is an excellent multiple-choice question written by my former colleague Fran Hayes that targets both knowledge of the word ‘misanthropic,’ but also the text that the students were studying, ‘A Christmas Carol.’

The best explanation of misanthropic is

  1. someone who enjoys the company of other people
  2. someone who likes to support others with charitable actions.
  3. someone who believes in individuals being responsible for themselves
  4. someone who generally dislikes other people and avoids others.
  5. someone who is born into a wealthy family.
  6. someone who is miserable.

What makes it great?

Notice that it invites students to consider if ‘philanthropic’ or ‘misanthropic’ is the best fit for Scrooge, by giving the option ‘B’ which is a definition of ‘philanthropic.’

The options then include several characteristics and beliefs of Scrooge, who the word misanthropic is a best fit for, in option C and E. Even option F invites students to consider if all miserable people are misanthropic, although it may be considered a less effective distractor as it arguably invites guessing.

Regardless, a student who knows the correct answer would definitely be able to find it within these six options. More importantly, they will even have to think about why the other answers are wrong as we have seen in the explanation above.

Notice also the phrasing of the question stem ‘The best explanation,’ this further supports student engagement and thinking by signalling to students that the distractors will be plausible.

With so much knowledge, challenge and deep thinking packed into just one question, you shouldn’t be wondering if you should start integrating them into your lessons, exams and curriculum. You should be thinking about how soon you can get them up and running.

Further reading

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Tod Brennan

Tod is an English teacher working in Dubai

Find me on Twitter @TodBrennanEng

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