Guidance on writing Multiple Choice Questions

Using Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs)

MCQs can be used as a learning activity and in assessment. They are engaging, can be any length, and are easy for students to understand. While they can be time consuming to set up, especially when used in summative assessment, this is balanced by automated marking and instant feedback to students. MCQs can be developed to ensure students have engaged with the breadth of a subject, but can also be used to test deeper level thinking skills. While students engage with them individually, they can be combined with other activities which encourage group and collaborative working.

Some ideas for how they can be used:

  • As a diagnostic assessment at the beginning of a module or topic – perhaps rerun at the end so students get a feel for how much they have progressed.
  • Following on from engaging with resources in My Studies to check recall, observation (to encourage engagement), and application of ideas.
  • As on-going activity underpinning the module teaching which students return to to keep trying more questions, perhaps linked to rewards such as unlocking new My Studies resources.
  • In combination with a follow-up discussion board so students can discuss why questions were right or wrong. The challenge for students who got the right answer is to support the discussion without giving the right answer away.
  • Devising new questions for the pool of MCQs is a good student-led activity (although they will probably attempt really difficult questions!)
  • You can easily track student engagement by using the My Studies test tool for running MCQs
  • For summative assessments you should use the My Studies test tool.

Writing MCQs

Writing good MCQs will create a more engaging experience for students, but it is especially important when writing MCQs for summative assessment, when the reliability and validity of the assessment depends on them. Be aware that students can become adept (even unconsciously) at spotting correct answers – and you can end up testing them on their ability to do this!

  • Return to your learning outcomes and double check how the MCQ can support them. For instance, if your module is based on real world learning, make sure the questions reflect this, i.e. create realistic scenarios that reflect professional working practices.
  • Try not to use MCQs simply for memory recall, find ways for students to demonstrate they can apply and evaluate information. Combine different skills such as interpreting data with applying the results to a situation.

MCQs are created from a stem (the question, problem or situation), and the alternatives, which include the current answer and a varying number of distractors.

  1. Writing good stems:
  • Avoid negative phrases. This can be confusing for students, but also doesn’t often replicate learning. If you have to use negative phrases, put them in italics.
  • Use clear statements with no or few subclauses.
  • Students should be able to answer the question without having the alternatives available. Don’t ask ‘which of the following is correct?’ type questions.
  1. Writing good alternatives
  • Three alternatives are fine, more than five means more work in writing them, and more time taken for students to read them in the test.
  • Don’t have an obvious wrong answer, all the alternatives should be plausible. The aim is for the incorrect alternatives to be distractors, if students can easily eliminate one alternative it is not distracting.
  • Use common student mistakes as the starting point for writing distractors.
  • Pay as much attention to the wrong alternatives as to the right one. Details such as length (correct answers tend to be longer), grammar (wrong alternatives are more likely to be incorrect or have a change in grammar from the stem as they are not as well checked), use of extreme terms such as always/never (in distractors), and vague terms such as ‘typically’ (in the answer) can help students spot correct responses.
  • Take convergence into account. Typically you will start writing the correct answer then the alternatives – and you will probably then use elements of the correct answer in the alternatives. The correct answer will therefore become more obvious by containing elements of each of the alternatives.
  • Don’t have ‘all of the above’/’none of the above’ type alternatives.
  • Don’t have complicated alternatives such as ‘a) cow; b) pig; c) dog; d) a & b’ as they are confusing and can allow students to increase a chance of spotting the right answer
  1. You’ll need to spend time drafting and redrafting your questions, and it is a good idea to work with a colleague to check each other’s questions.
  2. Once you’ve created a bank of questions, then adding a few more each year is less onerous and you will have a great resource to draw upon for learning activities and formative and summative assessment for many years.

This guidance was developed with reference to the following resources:

Brame, C., (2013) Writing good multiple choice test questions. Retrieved [todaysdate] from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/writing-good-multiple-choice-test-questions/.

Brigham Young University 2001 14 Rules for Writing multiple-choice Questions https://testing.byu.edu/handbooks/14%20Rules%20for%20Writing%20Multiple-Choice%20Questions.pdf

*Coughlin and Featherstone 2017 European Journal of Vascular and Endovascular Surgery. Volume 54, Issue 5, November 2017, Pages 654-658 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1078588417304458

University of Manchester  Teaching Innovation in the Faculty of Science and Engineering. Writing Multiple Choice Questions – A handy guide. http://www.elearning.fse.manchester.ac.uk/blog/2018/01/23/writing-multiple-choice-questions-handy-guide/

*this reflective piece is particularly useful in exploring good and better MCQs, and how they relate to learning.

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