The Multiple-Choice Exam on Creating Multiple-Choice Exams
Here are the answers to the first part of this guide. The correct answers
are shown in highlighted text. Short explanations
are provided where appropriate.
- The first part of a MC question is called the:
Note that the item is best structured in the form of a
statement that is completed by the correct response
- Each choice in a MC question is called a(n):
Note that the items should ideally be all the same length
- The incorrect choices in a MC question are called:
Distractors should be plausible alternatives; avoid using
humorous or ridiculous choices
- Consider a MC exam consisting of 10 questions, with four options each.
The probability of a student guessing all 10 questions correctly is:
For x questions with y choices each, the
probability of guessing all answers correctly is 1 in yx.
Four choices are recommended over the traditional five as it is much easier
to come up with three plausible distractors than four. If the items are short,
this also means that they can be presented horizontally, saving paper!
- 1 in 4
- 1 in 40
- 1 in 400
- 1 in 410
- The best way to present the choices in a question is:
Order the items alphabetically, by increasing value, etc.
It is unfair to make students hunt for the correct choice under exam
conditions, especially if the stakes are high!
- in a logical choice order
- in a random choice order
- so the first choice is incorrect
- so the middle choice is incorrect
- You should avoid using a negative in a MC question except:
This one is mildly controversial. Some authors state that you should never employ
negatives, but it can be much harder to write conceptual questions this way. The
concern is that students easily miss little words like “not”,
“except”, etc. Personally, I have no problem using a
negative provided that the question is in the form of a statement with
the negative at the end, immediately before the items
- when the choices are also negative expressions
- when the negative occurs at the end of the statement
- when you need to achieve a low class test average
- when you need to assess students’ test-taking ability
- This question is not an example of a good MC question because it:
Before you claim that the answer must be e, remember that this explicitly
includes “none of the above”! In fact, this question has
three correct answers: (a)–(c). Generally, avoid using
“none of the above” and “all of the above” as items.
See the last question for a better way of handling this situation.
- has a negative in the middle of the question
- avoids not using double negatives
- contains logically inconsistent items
- none of the above
- all of the above
- The preceding question additionally:
Did you spot it? Compare question 7 with question 6! It can be very easy
to include cues to the correct answers in other questions, especially
if you are copying questions from different sources.
- contains a cue to another question
- contains an excessively long choice
- contains several spelling mistakes
- contains too many answer choices
- The choices in a MC question should ideally:
Ideally, the distractors should be of about the same length
and style, and concern the same term(s) and ideas as the correct
answer. A single distractor that is unconnected or highly disimilar
to the others is too obvious!
- be irrelevant
- change stylistically
- be of a similar nature
- vary considerably in length between choices
- Consider the following three statements concerning MC exams:
- They are good for assessing factual knowledge
- They are good for assessing calculation skills
- They are good for assessing student understanding
Of course, this does depend on how well the questions are written in the
- Only statement (i) is true
- Only statement (ii) is true
- Only statements (i) and (ii) are true
- All three statements are true
The final answer leads us nicely into part 2 of this guide
– keep reading!