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Best Teaching Strategies for Multiple-Choice Tests

Jordan Catapano

Designing a multiple-choice test soon? Read these best-practice teaching strategies before you do. Multiple-choice tests offer several advantages that make them a dominant factor for so many assessments we choose to give students. Multiple-choice questions offer a versatile format for using teaching strategies to test a range of knowledge and thinking, as well as provide extremely quick scores for students and teachers to analyze. But the thing about multiple-choice questions is that they only work well if designed correctly. If designed poorly, then the results yield no useful teaching strategies for educators and could prove harmful for students’ grades and learning.

Teaching Strategies: The Strengths of a Multiple Choice Test

Cynthia J. Brame, from the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, points out that the chief advantages of using multiple-choice test questions are versatility, reliability, and validity.

Versatility refers to the wide range of content and skills a multiple-choice test could be designed to assess. From rote memorization to critical thinking and evaluation, multiple-choice questions can assess student thinking at a variety of levels.

Reliability relates to, “The degree to which a test consistently measures an outcome.” An individual question on a multiple-choice test can have a narrow, targeted focus, specifically designed to relate to measurable outcomes. Multiple-choice questions also restrict the subjectivity of students’ answer design and teacher interpretation.

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Validity consists of the degree to which a test actually measures what it says it’s going to. Because multiple-choice tests can provide short questions but long formats, such a test can increase validity by asking multiple questions related to the same learning outcomes (as opposed to an essay test, which will typically feature only one student answer from which data can be drawn).

But, as Brame warns, “The key to taking advantage of these strengths, however, is construction of good multiple-choice items.” So how do we do that?

What a Good Multiple Choice Question Looks Like

The standard multiple-choice question consists of two parts: The Stem and the alternatives. The stem is the question or statement students must respond to, and the alternatives are the option choices available, at least one of which is the correct answer.

We must be mindful we are composing question stems that communicate clearly rather than distract or confuse students. The worse the question stem is for students to comprehend, then the less valid and reliable our assessment is as a tool for authentically evaluating student knowledge. Many experts, such as Mary Piontek from the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan, remind us our question stems should:

  • Be clear and meaningful.
  • Get to the point, without unnecessary information inserted in.
  • Avoid negative statements. So avoid using phrases like, “all of the following EXCEPT …” or “Which of the following is NOT …”
  • Be phrased as a question. You may use sentences, but blanks in the sentence should be placed at the end, not in the middle.
  • Focus on core content, not petty or irrelevant details.
  • Intentionally tie questions to your course’s objectives and standards.

In addition to composing effective question stems, the answer options we provide ought to be a constructed in a clear and effective manner as well. Answer alternatives should:

  • All be reasonable responses to the stem to some degree.
  • Be clear and concise, without unnecessary language.
  • Be mutually exclusive, without overlapping content. The one correct answer should entirely exclude the other alternatives.
  • Be constructed with parallel form and content.
  • Avoid “All of the above” or “None of the above” as options.
  • Avoid unnecessarily tricky design or options, which make the question too complex for students to clearly think through.
  • Make sure content is independent of other questions (so students cannot get the answer to question #4 from the content in question #7).
  • If working in a teacher team, make sure instructors agree on which is the correct answer. Instructors – and therefore students – should not be able to make a valid argument for why more than one answer option could be correct.

Vanderbilt provides several examples you should look at related to these multiple-choice design basics, as does the Center for Teaching Excellence in Pennsylvania. And here’s a few more tips and resources from The University of Texas at Austin.

Other Handy Tips

Enhance validity

Since you’re using multiple-choice assessments to gather data regarding student knowledge and performance, your assessment must be valid. To do this, you need to increase the number of questions related to each objective. Once you determine which course objectives you’d like to assess, make sure there are no fewer than five questions that test that objective, and more if possible. You don’t want to determine the level of students’ proficiency based on just one question response, right?

Perform an Item Analysis

An “Item analysis” is a question-by-question overview of how many students got each one right or wrong. Performing this sort of analysis after giving a multiple-choice exam yields helpful details about the areas of strength and weakness in your students as well as strengths and weaknesses of your test. If most students got a question correct, then that would be a strength … or a question that’s too easy. If most students got a question wrong, then that would be an area of weakness … or a question you need to revise due to poor construction.

Provide Room for Discussion and Responses

It can be a very informative process to discuss the multiple-choice questions after students have taken the assessment. This can be beneficial for students for understanding the reasoning behind the right and wrong answers. This is also beneficial for teachers, as they can understand students’ thought processes, or identify what question constructions may have been confusing.

Be Patient and Revise

There’s no such thing as the perfect test, and this is especially true of multiple-choice questions. Many researchers point out that while multiple-choice tests are extremely easy to grade, they are extremely difficult to create. Every time you look at your multiple-choice questions and every time a class takes the assessment is an opportunity to make adjustments to the stems and alternatives.

As Mary Piontek points out in her conclusion, “It is important to remember to explain the purpose of assessment to ourselves and our students, understand the importance of using valid and reliable instruments, and carefully consider judgments made about data from those assessment instruments.” It is difficult – but never impossible – to do these things.

Consider how you might apply the tips listed above to help you make the most of your multiple-choice assessments.

What other tips would you include for giving multiple-choice questions? Share your thoughts with our community in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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