Ten Important Rules of Writing Multiple-Choice Questions

  1. Need to understand the test and be able to think critically rather than just rely on recall.

Questions of the multiple-choice variety often attract criticism for merely testing the student’s superficial knowledge i.e. their recall ability. However, these tests can go further by requiring students to evaluate various events or situations, interpret factual information, describe causes and effects, draw inferences, and/or forecast results.

  1. It is best when the structure of sentences is simple and the wording precise.

If it is your task to develop test or exam questions, use a simple and easy-to-understand structure. Try also to ensure your choice of words is as precise as possible. Some words can mean different things depending on their context and colloquial use.

  1. The majority of the words should be placed in the stem of the question.

If the questions you are writing have a stem, as opposed to being full questions, make sure the stem contains the majority of the words. This allows for shorter, more legible, and less confusing choices of answers.

  1. Distractors should be plausible.

All incorrect answer options should seem entirely reasonable. It is often difficult to achieve this, but do try not to include obvious distractors because these can detract from the credibility of a test.

  1. Try and keep the length of answer options the same.

This is sometimes difficult, but those who are experienced at taking tests can gauge the length of an answer as a clue to the right answer. Very often, longer answers are the correct option. If you find it difficult to write similar length answers, use a combination of short and long answers.

  1. Double negatives should be avoided.

This should not come as any surprise. Avoid using combinations of the following words in any given question: no, not, nor, -un prefixes, and so on. The following question, for instance, has the potential to confuse students: “Which of these situations might NOT be uncomfortable in the workplace?” Instead, turn it around to its positive version e.g. “Which of these situations might be comfortable in the workplace?”

  1. Scatter the order of right answer options around.

Do your best to ensure most right answers are not the “c” and “d” options. This happens frequently so it is best to scatter correct answer options randomly so that they do not form a recognizable pattern. Once you have completed your test, go back and change the order if needs be.

  1. The number of answer options should be consistent.

It is not the best scenario where answer options go up to ‘f’ for one test question and only to ‘d’ for others in the same test. Having a consistent number of answer options allows test-takers to know in advance, what they can expect. Various studies have disagreed about whether it is best to have 3, 4, or 5 choices. However, a lot of test-writers think 4 choices is fair.

  1. Try not to trick those taking tests.

While many types of tests have their faults, their purpose is to evaluate test-takers’ knowledge. Therefore, you should not include questions or answers to trick people. If there are two or more ways to interpret a question or an answer option, or if there is a very subtle difference between two or more options, try to re-draft that question or answer.

  1. Be cautious about using “ALL or NONE of the above” as options.

A lot of test writers dislike this rule because “all” or “none” can be useful when they cannot think of any more distractors. However, these are not necessarily good for improving a student’s knowledge. The reason for this is that when “all of the above” is not used in a consistent manner, it can be a clear give-away. Additionally, this option can promote guesswork where a test-taker thinks one or more of the answers seem correct. Another downside of the “all or none of the above” option is that it does not allow the examiner to judge if the student or test-taker really does know what the right answer is.

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