Quick tips to write effective multiple choice questions

The testing effect phenomenon repeatedly demonstrates that testing, instead of traditional studying, can improve long term memory retention, support knowledge transfer skills and enhancing the recall of non-tested material. And it appears to be gaining traction with classroom teachers. Yet, even though the benefit of testing is apparent, its full acceptance may take time.

However, steps can be taken in the classroom to implement the testing effect, which can improve the reliability of assessment data and reduce teacher workload. For instance, using quizzes at the start of lesson that interleave prior learning to test key concepts. Nonetheless, not all test-types are made equal but multiple choice questions are at the top and have many positive qualities.

They are a low intensity, high impact resource that can make a difference. Furthermore, they can produce reliable data, are simple to write and even easier to mark which can save loads of time. However, they do need to make pupils think hard.

For example, a poor set of multiple choice questions would have easy distractors that would allow the test taker to easily recognise the answer.

What is the capital of Malawi?

  1. Washington D.C.
  2. France
  3. Lilongwi
  4. London

Just by clear deduction the majority of people will select “C” even if they actually did not know the answer. So, how do you know that the test-taker has actually learned something?

So, what are the issues with the example? First, the distractors (the wrong answers) are too unlike the correct answer which can make the correct answer too recognisable. Second, the distractors are not logical (heterogeneous) – they are a mix of cities, capitals and countries.

Let’s now revisit the question but a higher quality version.

What is the capital of Malawi?

  1. Kampala
  2. Lusaka
  3. Lilongwi
  4. Maputo

The test-taker can no longer recognise the answer as quick as the distractors are plausible and homogeneous. Now, they must think back into their long term memories to recall the answer. The process of “searching” (thinking) is building the retrieval strength for the correct answer, even if they get the answer wrong.

Other quick tips to write effective quality multiple choice questions.

  • Set out clear instructions
  • Use only one correct option
  • Keep option lengths similar
  • Avoid negative questions
  • Avoid “none of the above” or “all of the above” as options

Multiple choice question quizzes can provide a quick and reliable snapshot of a pupils’ undestanding so that necessary support or adaptation to the learning can take place. Well-written questions can test more than facts. It can assess higher order thinking skills such as application and evaluation.

Discounting more tests too quickly as a teaching and learning tool may add more work to you. Swift multiple choice quizzes alleviate heavy dependency on marking, provide pupils with instant feedback and quizzes are a reusable resource that can be tweaked and recycled year after year.

Suggesting more testing may turn heads in the staff room but it will help pupils in making their learning stick.