Mastering Your Multiple-Choice Questions

Posted By Doug Peterson

If you’re going to the Questionmark Users Conference in New Orleans this week (March 21 – 23), be sure to grab me and introduce yourself! I want to speak to as many customers as possible so that I can better understand how they want to use Questionmark technologies for all types of assessments.

This year Sharon Shrock and Bill Coscarelli are giving a pre-conference workshop on Tuesday called “Criterion-Referenced Test Development.” I remember three years ago at the Users Conference in Memphis when these two gave the keynote. They handed out a multiple-choice test that everyone in the room passed on the first try. The interesting thing was that the test was written in complete gibberish. There was not one intelligible word!

The point they were making is that multiple-choice questions need to be constructed correctly or you can give the answer away without even realizing it. Last week I ran across an article in Learning Solutions magazine called “The Thing About Multiple-Choice Tests…” by Mike Dickinson that explores the same topic. If you author tests and quizzes, I encourage you to read it.

A few of the points made by Mr. Dickinson:

  • Answer choices should be roughly the same length and kept as short as possible.
  • Provide a minimum of three answer choices and a maximum of five. Four is considered optimal.
  • Keep your writing clear and concise – you’re testing knowledge, not reading comprehension.
  • Make sure that you’re putting the correct answer in the first two positions as often as the last two positions.

One of the most interesting points in the article is about the correctness of the individual answer choices. Mr. Dickinson proposes the following:

  • One answer is completely correct.
  • Another answer is mostly correct, but not completely. This will distinguish between those who really know the subject matter and those who have a more shallow understanding.
  • Another answer is mostly incorrect, but plausible. This will help reveal if test takers are just guessing or perhaps racing through the test without giving it much thought.
  • The fourth answer would be totally incorrect, but still fit within the context of the question.

Once you have an assessment made up of well-crafted multiple-choice questions, you can be confident that your analysis of the results will give you an honest picture of the learners’ knowledge as well as the learning situation itself – and this is where Questionmark’s reports and analytics really shine!

The Coaching Report shows you exactly how a participant answered each individual question. If your questions have been constructed as described above, you can quickly assess each participant’s understanding of the subject matter. For example, two participants might fail the assessment with the same score, but if one is consistently selecting the “almost correct” answer while the other is routinely selecting the plausible answer or the totally incorrect answer, you know that the first participant has a better understanding of the material and may just need a little help, while the second participant is completely lost.

The Item Analysis report shows you how a question itself (or even the class or course materials) is performing.

  • If pretty much everyone is answering correctly, the question may be too easy.
  • If almost no one is getting the question correct, it may be too hard or poorly written.
  • If the majority of participants are selecting the same wrong answer:
    • The question may be poorly written.
    • The wrong answer may be flagged as correct.
    • There may be a problem with what is being taught in the class or course materials.
  • If the answer selection is evenly distributed among the choices:
    • The question may be poorly written and confusing.
    • The topic may not be covered well in the class or course materials.
  • If the participants who answer the question correctly also tend to pass the assessment, it shows that the question is a “good” question – it’s testing what it’s supposed to test.

What question writing rules do you use when constructing a multiple-choice question? What other tips and tricks have you come up with for writing good multiple-choice questions? Feel free to leave your comments, questions and suggestions in the comments area!

2 Responses to “Mastering Your Multiple-Choice Questions”

  1. Raghavendra says:

    Hello sir,

    This is a very interesting post, could you share more literature in designing a good test item. would like to know more in that direction

  2. admin says:

    Hello,

    Here are some more resources:

    1.“Best practice” category on the blog
    2.My “Test Design and Delivery” blog series will touch on item writing
    3.“Evaluation Basics” by Donald V. McCain (ASTD Press) has a nice chart on item writing tips in the chapter on Level 2 assessments
    4.And of course, the Assessment Bible: “Criterion-Referenced Test Development” by Shrock and Coscarelli (3rd Edition, published by Pfeiffer), chapter 7.

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