8 tips for writing multiple-choice tests

In my large classes (with about 150 students), students taking multiple-choice tests mark their answers on Scantron sheets.

With the end of the term at colleges and universities across the country, literally thousands of faculty members are developing multiple-choice exams.

A multiple-choice exam is considered “easy” for teachers compared to other assessment approaches, such as essay exams. Developing a good multiple-choice test can save time in the grading but can take quite a bit of time in the development.

Here are some tips to help teachers improve their score on “Test Construction 101.” [You can find more complete advice and research studies that validate these tips at Brigham Young Testing Center — How to Prepare Better Multiple-Choice Test Items: Guidelines for University Faculty.

For starters, here are the parts of a multiple-choice question.
Stem = Question or statement posed
Alternatives = Possible choices

  • Answer = Correct choice
  • Distractor = Incorrect choice

Tip #1 – Write alternatives that are similar in length.
Having an answer that is longer or shorter than the other choices may make students think that is the correct answer.

Tip #2 – Write alternatives that have the same structure.
If one alternative is a phrase, then all alternatives should be phrases. Choices that have a different construction from the other choices often is viewed as the correct answer.

Tip #3 – Include only one correct answer.
If you have two choices that are possible answers, students then feel like the question is designed to trick them. So write one clearly correct answer.

Tip #4 – Avoid “all of the above” and “none of the above” as alternatives.
If the student knows that two alternatives are correct, then the answer must be “all of the above.” “None of the above” evaluates the student’s ability to identify incorrect answers rather than correct answers.

Tip #5 – Develop questions that test what is important for students to know.
Sometimes in your quest to write those last few questions, you write a question about some detail, such as the date of an event. If it’s important for students to leave your course knowing that date, then that’s an appropriate question. But if that date isn’t that important, then find other areas to test that are important.

Tip #6 – Develop questions that reflect the course content.
By that I mean that you want to avoid developing too many questions from one portion of the course (typically what you’ve just covered) and fewer from other portions of the course (typically from earlier in term).

A good approach is to write questions as the course proceeds rather than writing questions for the entire testing period right before the exam. (It’s too late to do that for this term, but you can make that a goal for next semester.)

Tip #7 – Have someone else read the exam.
If possible, have someone else read the exam. The best option is a colleague who knows the subject material. But even someone who doesn’t know the subject content can help with awkward wordings or other wording problems.

Tip #8 – Allow more time than you would think you’d need for creating the exam.
Especially if you are just learning the best practices of creating multiple-choice tests, developing good exam questions can take more time than you’d imagine.

I’m writing this post after having just created a 50-item multiple-choice exam for one of my classes. I’m pleased to say that for this test I’ve passed the test of my own tips.

Good luck with your end-of-semester testing.

I’d be interested in your advice about developing multiple-choice tests or your views of when multiple-choice tests should and shouldn’t be used in student assessment.

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