A multiple choice question begins with a stem or lead-in that is addressed by a correct response chosen from a list of alternatives. Writing a good multiple choice question that elicits an answer based on knowledge, not guessing or misunderstanding, is an art. For example:
Who was the twentieth president of the United States?
A. Rutherford B. Hayes
B. James A. Garfield
C. Chester A. Arthur
D. Grover Cleveland
This question tests recall of the twentieth president. The stem is parsimonious, including only the ideas and words necessary to answer the question. The “distractors” are parallel, possible answers–all presidents from around the same time. Compare to this question:
Choosing the first president of the United States was a tremendous responsibility. He would set precedents for subsequent office holders. The Electoral College unanimously elected George Washington who had led the colonies to victory against the British. James Madison, who was married to Dolly, was the fourth president. Who was the twentieth?
A. James Brown
B. LeBron James
C. James Garfield
D. James Bond
In this question, the stem is overwritten with information you don’t need to answer the question correctly. Irrelevant information may be testing your reading comprehension more than your twentieth president knowledge. Even if you know the correct answer, you may get it wrong because you can’t get through the reading.
The distractors are implausible. If the correct answer is embedded in a group of possibilities that are totally outlandish, you will get the right answer not because you’ve learned it, but because you can use general knowledge to eliminate the others. That’s a bad question.
If written correctly, a multiple choice question can be very effective at proving mastery in elementary cognitive categories of remembering and understanding, and to a lesser extent in the third category, applying.
According to Cathy Davidson, educator Frederick J. Kelly introduced multiple choice tests in 1914. They were intended to improve the equality of grading. Teacher bias, as well as individual differences such as wealth or poverty, would not prevent a student from being graded correctly. Multiple choice questions also made grading less time-consuming for teachers, freeing them to do more instruction. Incorporated in standardized tests, multiple choice questions allowed us to compare student proficiency in different areas of the country.
These goals resonate today: To evaluate students without bias. To give them equal opportunity to learn despite where they live or learn. To free instructors to have more time to teach and interact with students. Now with technology we are developing even better ways to accomplish these goals.
Kelly created multiple choice questions to measure basic 20th century skills such as Bloom’s Taxonomy’s remembering and understanding. He probably wrote questions similar to our sample, but today good multiple choice assessment rarely tests this type of factual recall. In the 21st century we need to teach and test higher order cognitive skills such as applying, analyzing, and evaluating.
Writing multiple choice questions to test higher order thinking is more challenging than writing Kelly’s types of questions. Written well, these questions help learning optimization, having students better test their abilities and instructors assess student mastery. They are particularly suited for digital platforms, where they can include hints and targeted feedback for incorrect answers that extend learning through assessment.
Digital education programs can also assess student performance using diverse measures so that learners are not locked into one type of question and answer format. These programs create robust student profiles that show learning process over time and a more accurate picture of student mastery. As these programs develop, they will help us find a better solution to the fundamental problem educators want to solve: How do we make sure that students have learned what they need to learn to be successful in the world?