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One simple tweak to maximise your multiple-choice quizzes

One simple tweak to maximise your multiple-choice quizzes

4 min read
  • Questioning, Cold-Calling & Wait Times
  • Retrieval Practice

Multiple-choice tests offer a quick and easy way to gauge your students’ grasp of a subject. Plus, they’re a great form of Retrieval Practice, which means they can also help to enhance your students’ memory retention and recall abilities.

We all know what a multiple-choice quiz looks like, but have you ever wondered whether you could use them in a way that would better test your students’ understanding of a topic? What if one simple change could not only evaluate their knowledge but also enhance their learning process?

Read on to learn more about:

  • What the research says about multiple-choice tests
  • How delayed multiple-choice questions can benefit your students
  • Tips on how to design multiple-choice tests

What are the learning benefits of multiple-choice tests?

Multiple-choice tests are a beneficial tool to assess your students’ knowledge and a strategy for Retrieval Practice. The former aspect makes good use of Rosenshine’s sixth Principle of Instruction, while the latter is highlighted as one of the top learning techniques by a significant amount of research.

What does the recent multiple-choice question research say?

A recent study explored two types of multiple-choice questions in vocabulary learning:

  • Standard multiple-choice questions
  • Delayed multiple-choice questions (in the research, these are called “Stepwise Multiple-Choice Questions”), where there was a 4-second delay between the question being presented and the answer options becoming visible.

In the experiments, students were presented with no prior knowledge of the topic were presented with 20 multiple-choice questions and asked to guess the right answer. They practised using both types of questions and received immediate feedback.

A few days later, the researchers evaluated students’ memory retention and understanding in a test. The results revealed that stepwise MCQs proved to be a game-changer, bolstering the students’ memory retention and understanding beyond what traditional MCQs could achieve. 

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Why are stepwise multiple-choice questions beneficial?

Stepwise MCQs offer a fresh approach to learning, encouraging students to first recall an answer from memory before presenting them with multiple choices. This method, which capitalises on Retrieval Practice, has been shown to significantly enhance vocabulary learning in both children and adults, outperforming the traditional format where answer options are immediately visible.

In essence, stepwise multiple-choice questions are a simple yet powerful tool to foster deeper understanding and improve recall among learners. By encouraging students to retrieve information from memory before seeing potential answers, they turn passive learning into an active process, leading to better educational outcomes.

6 tops for designing effective multiple-choice tests

As well as deciding when to present the answer options, there are many factors to consider when it comes to designing a multiple-choice test. For example, how many options should you include? How difficult should the questions be? Should you give feedback?

Recently, researchers have explored this exact question, which we discuss in more depth in our blog How to design the perfect multiple-choice test. Here are some guidelines from this research that you may want to consider when designing a multiple-choice test for your students:

1.  Avoid complicated question or answer formats

Overly complex multiple-choice questions can undermine students’ recall abilities and lead to guesswork.

2. Steer clear of “none of the above” or “all of the above” options

A “none of the above” choice exposes your students to incorrect answers, and can negatively impact their performance, and while an “all of the above” option can be helpful if correct, it can also be misleading if incorrect. Both choices may hinder your students’ learning process.

3. Ideally, offer 3-4 answer options

The ideal number of options in a multiple-choice test is a topic of debate. A meta-analysis spanning 80 yearssuggests that three options – one correct answer and two distractors – strike the best balance between quality and efficiency.

However, this isn’t a strict rule and can vary based on the number of viable incorrect options. For example, if there are three plausible distractors, four options may be more suitable.

4. Strive for a balanced test difficulty

Tests should be challenging yet achievable. Researchers suggest that students should be able to accurately answer around 77% of the questions, slightly above the median between chance and perfection – similar to Rosenshine’s seventh Principle of Instruction.

Setting high standards can boost academic performance by motivating students to exert more effort. However, overly difficult tasks can dent their confidence. Maintaining a balance is crucial.

5. Feedback is your key tool

Providing feedback is crucial in crafting multiple-choice tests. It can help rectify misconceptions and enhance your students’ performance. When to deliver feedback is debated, with some research suggesting a brief delay could be advantageous for learning, though findings vary based on assessed conditions.

6. Confidence-weighted multiple-choice tests

These allow students to not only choose an answer but also express their confidence in their selection. This method gives teachers a deeper insight into students’ comprehension and highlights areas needing more instruction. It fosters critical thinking and metacognitive skills, providing invaluable feedback that enhances learning outcomes. 

Final thoughts

Standard multiple-choice questions can already have a great impact on learning, but for a more in-depth understanding and effective learning experience, stepwise multiple-choice questions offer a compelling alternative. They encourage continuous engagement, provide immediate feedback and allow for targeted intervention.

So why not give this small tweak a try and add a 4-second delay between questions and answers in your MCQs? You might just find that stepwise multiple-choice questions enhance your teaching experience and provide your students with a deeper understanding of the subject matter.

Book a Retrieval Practice Teacher CPD workshop today to learn how to accelerate academic growth at your school with one of the most effective Teaching & Learning strategies and enhance your multiple-choice testing skills.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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