20 Crucial Tips for Writing Great Multiple-Choice Test Questions

by John Soares on May 16, 2009

Multiple-choice test questions are perhaps the most widely used method of testing students’ knowledge. If you are a textbook supplements writer, you could be writing questions for a test bank, for an instructor’s manual, for a student study guide, or for a student companion website. (Of course, you may also be a teacher creating your own tests.)

Prelude: Definitions of 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 20 Crucial Tips for Writing Great Multiple-Choice Questions

1. Write questions with five options if possible. This is more difficult than writing questions with only four options, but it decreases the percentage of correct answers for a random guesser.

2. Put as much of the question as possible into the stem. Most questions deal with a problem or ask for a specific response, so get this in the stem.

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

4. If using a blank in the stem, preferably place it at the end of the stem; try to avoid putting the blank at the beginning of the stem.

5. Make sure the grammar and punctuation of each option matches that in the stem; otherwise you can give away the answer to the perceptive student.

6. Keep the options roughly the same length, and especially don’t let the correct answer be significantly longer than the incorrect answers.

7. Keep the language in the options as simple as possible. You are testing for knowledge, not reading comprehension.

8. Avoid using language directly from the textbook.

9. Make the incorrect answers sound as plausible as possible.

10. Avoid using absolute words—always, never, all, none—in an option. This is a clue to test-smart students that this option is likely not correct.

11. Have only one correct or obviously best answer.

12. Be especially careful with numbers and percentages as options. If you are not careful, more than one option will be correct.

13. Place answer options in logical order from smallest to largest, earliest to latest, etc. This makes the question as clear as possible.

14. 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 “not,” capitalize the entire word: “NOT.” Or you can put “not” in bold font.

15. Assure that each of the possible option-choice letters is the correct one only 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, for example, a pattern that “C” is the correct choice half the time, and then they can guess this when they don’t know the actual answer to a question.

16. 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.

17. To test for factual knowledge, use “who,” “where,” and “when” questions. For factual questions, be sure that the fact is not trivial.

18. “None of These.” First make sure you use “these.” 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. Check first about using “none of these”; some editors will not want them in the test bank at all.

19. “All of These.” Try to avoid this type of question 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,” be sure to follow the guidelines given above for “none of these.”

20. Two or More Correct Answers. Avoid writing questions with two or more correct answers. They can be useful as a testing tool, but they are confusing to students.

It’s Not Easy!

Writing multiple-choice questions is a difficult task to do well and can be quite time consuming. Be aware of this when you are negotiating the payment and nature of the test bank with the editor. If the editor wants a lot of multiple-choice questions, either press for higher pay or see if the number of multiple-choice questions can be reduced in favor of other types of questions. But also note that multiple-choice questions are most likely to be used by instructors and are thus the best selling point of the test bank.

(This post is based on Chapter 10, “Creating Test Banks,” from John Soares’ ebook Writing College Textbook Supplements: The Definitive Guide to Winning High-Paying Assignments in the College Textbook Publishing Market. You can download the ebook’s detailed table of contents, introduction, and first two chapters for free.)

Your Take

What are your thoughts on what I say here? Do you agree? Why or why not?

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    { 2 comments… read them below or add one }

    Stephanie Hoffman May 19, 2009 at 10:55 am


    Your 20 tips are right on target! Previously, I was an on-line business instructor and writing well-crafted and targeted questions were crucial for student learning. Thank you so much for the great information!



    John Soares May 19, 2009 at 11:32 am

    Glad you found it helpful Stephanie.

    Online instructors should check out an excellent video created by Michelle Pacansky-Brock that introduces students to online courses and shows them how to succeed.

    Find it at http://mpbreflections.blogspot.com/2009/05/are-you-ready-for-online-class-back-by.html.


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