Why the key to multiple choice is wrong answers

13th November 2015 at 00:00
These questions can be a powerful learning tool, but only if we master their fine art

daisy christodoulou

Multiple-choice questions (MCQs) are among the few things in education that unite progressives and traditionalists. For many progressives, they are soulless and reductive, attempting to distil the wonder of learning into five tick-boxes. For many traditionalists, they’re just too easy: you can always guess, and they can’t possibly match up to the gold standard of the essay.

But is this reputation fair? Let’s look at the evidence. Consider this question, which sums up why many people dislike MCQs:

What is the capital of Moldova?

A) Chisinau

B) York

C) London

D) Cardiff

This question tests a fact that, when torn from context, is apparently meaningless. It is also ridiculously easy to guess. The distractors – the technical term for the wrong answers – are all famous British cities, so there is only one plausible right answer.

Now consider this question:

Why was Stalin able to defeat Trotsky in the struggle for power in the Soviet Union?

A) Stalin had been chosen by Lenin as the next leader.

B) Stalin supported the popular policy of world revolution.

C) Stalin controlled appointments in the Communist Party.

D) Stalin had gained support from the Red Army by leading it in the revolution.

While this is still multiple-choice, it is clearly much more difficult. It’s also meaningful: the power struggle between Stalin and Trotsky had huge implications for 20th-century history and is a topic of scholarly debate. The question requires thought processes similar to those of writing an essay. Indeed, without the distractors, it would work perfectly well as an essay question. But unlike the question about the Moldovan capital, the distractors arguably increase the challenge.

For example, option B is plausible because it seems likely that a popular policy would be the cause of Stalin’s victory. Also, the policy of world revolution really was popular, and really was a topic of debate at this time. However, it was a policy advocated by Trotsky, whereas Stalin advocated “Socialism in One Country”. Pupils with superficial understanding of the era may select B, whereas pupils with stronger understanding will select the correct answer – C.

A tough code to crack

These examples show that MCQs have to be written with care. The distractors are vital. If they are simply ridiculous, then of course the question will be easy. Question-writers strive to create distractors that are plausible but unambiguously wrong. It’s not easy to do, but when they get it right it leads to difficult questions that are sometimes even harder than having a completely open question.

As a result it’s no surprise that, in many countries, MCQs are used in final summative exams. The example above was from British Columbia’s history exam for school-leavers. The Graduate Management Admission Test is composed almost entirely of MCQs and is used to determine entry into some of North America’s most prestigious academic courses.

Such questions aren’t just of value to exam boards: they can be useful for teachers, too. A number of university presses offer online MCQs as supplements to textbooks. For example, Oxford University Press’ Introduction to Politics features questions such as this one:

Liberal ideology...

A) was invented in the 18th century to serve the interests of the British Liberal Party.

B) developed as a hostile response to the emergence of industrial capitalism.

C) is a compromise between socialism and conservatism.

D) is a long-established creed which focuses on individual freedom.

Once you’ve chosen your answer and submitted it, you get some feedback on the question. “The correct answer is D. Liberalism predates the British Liberal Party, which was not known by that name until the mid-1800s (answer A). Far from being hostile to industrial capitalism (answer B), liberalism is seen by some critics as an attempt to justify this economic system. The ideology is certainly not a compromise between socialism and conservatism; its focus on individual liberty makes it clearly distinct from those ideologies.”

This formative use of MCQs can help teachers and students to monitor their progress through a unit of work and to avoid common misconceptions.

So, we can see that MCQs can be difficult, yet there is still value in the easier type. Take the following question:

What is the capital of Moldova?

A) Chisinau

B) Baku

C) Yerevan

D) Tbilisi

This is clearly more challenging than the question at the start of this article, but critics might also say that it tests an isolated and unconnected fact. However, we know from cognitive science that these kinds of small and apparently meaningless facts combine in long-term memory and help us to make sense of the world. If you know all the capitals of the world, then articles that mention those places make more sense. If you know a framework of dates from history, then every time you encounter a new date, you can easily place it into some kind of context. If you know lots of French vocab, you’ll obviously understand French better, and if you know mathematical formulas off by heart, it’s easier to apply those formulas to complicated new problems. Banks of simple MCQs, perhaps entered into a database and accessed through a phone app, can speed up memorisation of such facts and so help to build understanding.

If done correctly, MCQs can help teachers to identify misconceptions, students to memorise key facts and examiners to distinguish between candidates. They deserve a better reputation – and a bit more attention.

Daisy Christodoulou is research and development manager at Ark Schools

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