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Guidelines for Developing Multiple Choice Questions

Exams serve several purposes. They...

  • tell faculty if the learning outcomes have been achieved and to what degree.
  • provide a means of evaluating a student for grading purposes.
  • serve as an additional learning experience for the student, especially when well constructed.

Multiple choice questions are popular for a variety of reasons:

  • They can measure various levels of knowledge and, if constructed well, higher-order thinking.
  • They offer greater reliability than true-false items because the opportunity to guess is reduced.
  • They allow teachers to more quickly analyze the results of an exam.

Multiple choice items consist of a stem and a set of options. The stem is the beginning statement that presents a problem to be solved, a question to be asked, or an incomplete statement to be completed, and any other pertinent information. The options are the possible answers to choose from, with the correct answer called the key and the incorrect answers called distracters.

To increase the validity and reliability of multiple choice questions, consider the following:

  1. Estimate that one multiple choice question will take approximately three minutes to answer.
  2. Address only one problem, concept, or task in the stem in a clear and succinct fashion.
  3. State the stem in positive terms, and avoid words like never, not, no, etc. If these words are used, italicize, bold or underline them to ensure that they are not overlooked.
  4. Avoid repetition and reading time by including in the stem any words that will be repeated in the options.
  5. Have only one clearly correct answer and two or three incorrect options (distracters or foils).
  6. Make the incorrect options "equally plausible and attractive. Absurd options only make guessing easier" (Nilson 201).
  7. Write the correct response without elaboration. In fact, students often view the longer or more elaborate option as correct because some instructors make it so. In other words, all options should be nearly equal in length.
  8. Use language students are familiar with (i.e., language used in class and in the homework).
  9. Minimize using "all of the above" or "none of the above." "'None of the above’ is best for questions where students are asked to select the best answer" (Piontek 4). Using "all of the above" often results in students selecting it, especially if one option is correct and they think another one might be.
  10. Use each alternative (i.e., A, B, C, or D) about equally. When proofing your exam, check to see if either A, B, C, or D is often the answer, or if there is a pattern the students might try to figure out.
  11. Place options in a logical order (i.e., from the lowest to the highest number, in chronological order, etc.) This reduces having to read and reread the options multiple times.

For more tips on testing, see the CTE’s self-paced, online workshop, Testing Techniques, and the following CTE Teaching Tips:


Nilson, L. Teaching At Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Anker, 2003. Print.

Piontek, M. "Best Practices for Designing and Grading Exams." CRLT Occasional Papers No. 24. Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. U. of Michigan, 2008. PDF file.

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