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We want a society
in which we are free
to make choices,
to make mistakes,
and be generous and compassionate.
Margaret Thatcher, 1925 -
English prime minister

Constructing multiple choice tests

What happens: Learner

  • Reads an incomplete statement or a question, also called the "stem"
  • Reads three to five alternatives, including
    the incorrect options, also called the "distractors"
    the correct option, also called the "keyed response"
  • Marks his or her choice

How to develop:

  • Outline the core content that the test will cover
  • Identify and prioritize key points, tasks
  • Write out a series of stems
    (The question format is generally is less ambiguous than the completion format)
  • Write keyed responses in a clear, grammatical sentence
    that follows the format of the stems
  • Develop alternatives or distractors that follow the grammatical style,
    are consistent in length, and avoid quoting the content of the course

When/how to use:

  • Appropriate for all levels of cognitive ability
  • Objective
  • Useful for automated scoring
  • Useful for item analysis, internal and over time

Ideal test items and stems:

  • Use simple, direct language to present direct, core information for analysis, comparison, evaluation, etc.
    (avoid cleverness, trickery, and verbal complexity)
  • Include as much of the item as possible in the stem
    (avoids repeated information and briefer alternatives)
  • Present unique content
    Do not build upon other questions
    Do not supply answers to other questions
  • Avoid negative stems
    IF negatives are necessary, they are emphasized with underlined, bolded, CAPITALIZED, italicized, and/or colored indicators
  • Use either the "correct answer" or "best answer" format
    Correct answer: key response is clearly right and distractors are clearly wrong
    Best answer: while distractors can be relatively viable, the key response is clearly demonstrated to fulfill all conditions of the test item. Best answer should avoid "none of the above," "both a. and e. above," "all of the above," options.
  • Avoid "All of the following are true, except . . ."
    unless testing for exceptions to rules
  • Paraphrase, and do not directly quote, course content to avoid burdening students with detailed verbal analyses, to maintain focus on differentiating, as well as to avoid copyright issues
  • Qualify significant information at the beginning of the stem:
    Background, opinions, etc,: "According to...., ...."
  • Do not introduce unfamiliar vocabulary and concepts in the test unless there is a relevant stated purpose in the test directions


  • Avoid generalizations that are open to interpretation
  • Use the number of alternatives appropriate to a test item throughout the test, generally three to five (no necessity to use a consistent number throughout the test)
  • Sequence alternatives in logical or numerical order;
    Should there be no order, randomly assign correct answers in the sequence
  • List alternatives on separate lines, indent, separate by blank line, use letters vs. numbers for alternative answers
  • Pay attention to grammatical consistency of all alternatives

Keyed (correct) responses

  • Vary position in sequence of alternatives


  • Include common misconceptions as distractors
  • Include plausible content or viable cues in each distractor
    Consider optional testing formats if distractors are difficult to develop
    Avoid meaningless, even humorous distractors
  • Re-use key words from the correct alternative to make distractors more viable
  • Avoid "All of the above"
    One incorrect distractor eliminates it; two correct distractors identify it
  • Use "None of the above" as an effective option for factual information (historical dates, math, etc.) to make a question more challenging
  • Do not use with a negative stem since it becomes a double-negative
  • Do not use "None of the above" in a "best answer" question

Avoiding cheating:

  • Develop a pool of questions
  • Generate several optional tests
  • Distribute randomly

Types of Multiple-choice questions:

Base questions upon, and preceded by, a statement, image, map, chart, etc.
Can accommodate alternative learning styles

Use the Roman Type for comparisons and contrasts
Test stem includes two options, each preceded by a (Roman) numeral.
Alternatives present optional combinations:


Which of the following is (are) accurate about...?

  1. First option
  2. Second option
    1. I only
    2. II only
    3. Both I and II.
    4. Neither I nor II.
Curricular guides and resources:

Using feedback in the classroom | Teaching critical thinking | Bloom's taxonomy |
Teaching with questioning | Preparing guided notes |
A curricular idea! | Curricular resources and guides |
Learning Exercises & Games | Exploring learning styles |
Constructing true/false tests | Constructing multiple choice tests |
Constructing essay exams | Cross language resources including digital translators |
Online Learning/eLearning books and resources for teachers

See also: Kehoe, Jerard, Writing Multiple-Choice Test Items., 1995, ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation Washington DC.