30 Rules for Creating Good Multiple-Choice Questions

by John Soares on June 9, 2014

Multiple-choice test questions are one of the most widely used methods of testing students’ knowledge. If you are a freelance writer for higher education or K-12 companies, you could be writing student assessment questions for a test bank, for a student study guide, or for a student companion website — or you may be a teacher creating your own tests.

College students taking a test.

Courtesy CCarlstead

I’ve been writing test questions for 20-plus years for at least a fifty different college textbooks published by companies like Pearson Education, Cengage, and McGraw-Hill, and in disciplines ranging from history and political science to geography, earth sciences, and biology. In those two decades I’ve probably written 50,000 or more multiple-choice questions.

I’ve also been a student of how to create the best questions, and I’ve distilled all my experience and knowledge in the 30 techniques below.

Defining Multiple-Choice Question Parts

The stem is the initial part of the question.

The options are the various answers from which the student chooses; they are usually designated sequentially with letters from A through D or E. The incorrect options are often called distractors.

1. Stem
A. Option A
B. Option B
C. Option C
D. Option D
E. Option E

30 Techniques for Writing Quality Multiple-Choice Questions

1. Imagine you are the student taking the test.

This shouldn’t be too hard to do. You were a student once, right? You wanted a fair test then, so now that you are the one writing the questions…

2. Be fair!

Questions should be easy to understand and they should only address information and skills that a student will have read in the textbook or encountered in other learning materials associated with the course.

3. Adequately test all the important material.

Don’t focus too much on specific parts of a chapter to the exclusion of other parts of a chapter. I’ve seen this far too often when I update an existing test bank/test-item file. For example, a chapter with 20 pages of text (excluding the introduction and end matter) that requires 40 multiple-choice questions per chapter should have roughly two questions per page, not 20 questions covering the first five pages and 20 questions covering the last 15 pages.

4. Follow guidelines from your editor.

When you get an assignment to write questions for a textbook or any other higher education or K-12 course material, your editor will likely give you a set of guidelines for number of questions per chapter, formatting, and perhaps other things such as indicating difficulty level and having a certain percentage of questions that are factual and a certain percentage that are some type of analytical/application/critical thinking. Follow those guidelines! Ask your editor for clarification if there’s anything you don’t understand.

5. Respect Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Bloom’s Taxonomy delineates six different types of assessment questions: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. Not all are applicable to multiple-choice questions, especially creating, but in recent years more editors and higher-education companies ask freelance writers to create specific percentages of certain types of questions. (Read more about Bloom’s Taxonomy here.)

6. Put as much as possible into the stem.

Most questions deal with a problem or ask for a specific response, so put that in the stem; this makes it easier for students to grasp the question.

7. Write the stem as a complete question when possible.

Again, this makes it easier on the test taker. It also makes it easier on you once you get used to it.

8. If you put a blank in the stem, try to put it at the end.

Of course, this isn’t always feasible; just make sure students aren’t confused. By “blank,” I mean an underscore line.

9. Make the stem blank roughly the size of the options.

Do this unless the options are all fairly long, and then go with a blank size that fits well with the stem.

10. Have the grammar and punctuation of each option match that in the stem.

Otherwise you can give away the answer to the perceptive student.

11. Bold and capitalize important words that are crucial for understanding.

I almost always put the following words in bold and capital letters: NOT, EXCEPT, LEAST, MOST. This helps students focus on what they need to consider to answer the question correctly.

12. Provide five options when possible.

This is more difficult than writing questions with only four options, but it decreases the percentage of correct answers for a random guesser. Typically, when you’re writing a test-item file, you need to be consistent with the number of options, and creating five is obviously more difficult than creating four.

13. Keep the options roughly the same length when feasible.

Especially take care that the correct answer is not substantially longer than the incorrect answers, or at least only rarely so.

14. Keep the language in the options as simple as possible.

You are testing for knowledge, not reading comprehension. Remember that many students taking the test are not native English speakers, and some may have only recently come to your country to study.

15. Avoid expressions that are culturally specific.

You can’t assume that all students have watched a particular TV program or know who a certain singer is.

16. Be consistent with formatting.

This includes how you punctuate the stem and options, and also other areas, such as student feedback and correct-answer indication.

17. Avoid using language directly from the textbook.

Sometimes it’s the best choice, but make it rare. Also make sure your editor says it’s OK. Mine always have, but they prefer I don’t.

18. Make the incorrect answers/options sound as plausible as possible.

You want to keep those persons who didn’t study enough from getting a higher score than they deserve.

19. Minimize using absolute words—always, never, all, none—in an option.

Test-smart students have learned that such options are rarely correct.

20. Have only one correct or obviously best answer.

It’s not fair to students to have an ambiguous question or a question with two right answers.

21. Be especially careful with numbers and percentages as options.

If you don’t pay strict attention, more than one option will be correct.

22. Place answer options in logical order from smallest to largest, earliest to latest, etc. when applicable.

This makes the question as clear as possible. If you are using test-generation software, see if you can turn off answer randomization on such questions and thus lock the answers in the order you want.

23. Use the term “NOT” in the stem only when there are no better options available for stating the stem in the positive voice.

Questions with “not” in the stem are typically a small minority of the questions a student faces, so they can potentially cause momentary mental confusion, or the student may not see “not” at all. When you do use it, capitalize and bold the entire word: “NOT.”

24. Assure that each of the possible option-choice letters is the correct one roughly 20 percent of the time when there are five options and 25 percent of the time when there are four options.

Otherwise students may notice a pattern to test and quiz answers over time. If a student figures out that “C” is the correct choice half the time, they can guess this when they don’t know the actual answer to a question.

25. To test for understanding and the ability to interpret and apply knowledge, use “why,” “which,” and “how” questions.

You can also give a hypothetical situation in the stem and then test for understanding in the options by using resolutions or explanations of the hypothetical situation. (See also the tip about Bloom’s taxonomy above.)

26. To test for factual knowledge, use “who,” “where,” and “when” questions.

These are usually the easiest questions to write. However…

27. For factual questions, be sure that the fact is not trivial.

There may be a thousand different facts in a textbook chapter. There is no way a student can memorize all of them, so test on what is truly important and what a student can reasonably be expected to know.

28. “None of these.”

First make sure you use “these” and not “above.” Test bank software often randomizes answers, so you cannot assume that what you put in the final option (“D” if there are four options, “E” if there are five options) will stay there. Second, “none of these” should be the correct answer about 20 percent of the time if there are five options and 25 percent of the time if there are four options. Third, be sure that when “none of these” is the correct answer, that none of the other options is partially correct. Also, check first about using “none of these”; some editors will not want you to use these types of questions at all.

29. “All of these.”

Try to avoid this if possible. Use “all of these” questions only when you have to write so many multiple-choice questions that you think you will have difficulty coming up with enough for each chapter. If you do use “all of these,” the same guidelines and caveats given for “none of these” apply. (And, of course, don’t use “all of the above.”)

30. Avoid writing questions with two or more correct answers

They can be useful as a testing tool, but they can be confusing to students and are sometimes difficult to adapt in the software many companies use to create test banks.

Other Resources

There are many good websites out there that offer excellent advice. Most echo what I say here, although some have a slightly different take.

10 Rules for Writing Multiple-Choice Questions
Writing Multiple-Choice Questions
Good tips from Vanderbilt University

Your Take

What are your thoughts on my tips? What would you add? Share below…

Freelance writers who specialize make much more money than those who don't. My short and focused course Find Your Freelance Writing Niches: Make More Money for Less Work guides you through all the key steps you need to take to discover the specialties that will take your freelance writing income to a much higher level. Click here for all the details.

    { 6 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Steeny Lou June 9, 2014 at 10:28 AM

    I have never given it any thought that someone might be paid to create a multiple-choice test, other than the teacher or professor of a class, or the author(s) of a textbook. How common is this as a job? Can one actually earn a living at it?
    Steeny Lou recently posted…It’s “voila” – NOT “viola”!

    Reply

    2 John Soares June 9, 2014 at 10:37 AM

    Steeny, some teachers and profs write their own questions. However, they usually have access to a “bank” of test questions provided by the publisher of the textbook they use for the class.

    It is definitely quite common, and I’ve been earning a good living for over two decades doing this and similar projects for textbook publishers.

    For those interested in this line of work, see my ebook “Writing College Textbook Supplements.”
    John Soares recently posted…How Freelance Writers Can Keep Editors Happy

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    3 Jennifer Mattern June 11, 2014 at 2:41 AM

    Twitter: @Jenn_Mattern

    Good tips John! I’ll have to keep keep these in mind while developing questions for my e-course quizzes. :)

    There are also some good tips in here for people creating survey questions. So many of them are poorly-created to bring about certain results. I’d love to see your take at some point on how some of these things could be directly incorporated into survey development. :)

    Reply

    4 John Soares June 11, 2014 at 9:46 AM

    Jenn, you’re absolutely right: many of these tips are very important for creating effective surveys. I’m surprised that so many polls and surveys are poorly written without adequate thought. If you don’t ask good questions, you won’t get reliable data.
    John Soares recently posted…Four Reasons Why Freelance Writers Should Specialize

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    5 J'aime June 16, 2014 at 1:59 PM

    Twitter: @JaimeAWells

    I wish I could send this post back in time to this one high school teacher I had. He used to violate #20 all the time. I hated taking his tests. You had to guess which answer he thought was the most right, of the two that could be right, depending on how you looked at things… ARG.

    Reply

    6 John Soares June 17, 2014 at 6:15 PM

    That’s always frustrating J’aime. Many teachers write their own questions, and quite often they do a very poor job of it.
    John Soares recently posted…Successful Freelance Writers Do These Small Things Early

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