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6 tips for designing the perfect multiple-choice test

6 tips for designing the perfect multiple-choice test

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

Multiple-choice exams are a quick and easy way to assess students’ understanding of a topic. Plus, since it’s a method of retrieval practice, it can also help improve students’ retention and recall performance. But is there such a thing as the perfect multiple-choice test?

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?

Researchers have explored this exact question, and have suggested 6 guidelines that you may want to consider when designing a multiple-choice test for your students. This blog summarises their findings…

The benefits of multiple-choice tests

Multiple-choice tests are a useful assessment tool and a method of retrieval practice. This technique involves generating an answer to a question and is shown to be one of the most effective learning methods. Some benefits of using retrieval practice include:

  • Helping identify gaps in knowledge
  • Making and strengthening connections
  • Checking for misunderstandings
  • Making connections robust under pressure and stress

Designing the perfect multiple-choice test

6 tips to design the best multiple-choice test

In this review, researchers outlined the 6 top practices when creating a multiple-choice test:

1. Avoid complex questions or answer formats 

A highly ineffective method of designing multiple-choice questions is having complex questions and answers. If the question is overly complicated, it becomes less about how well students can retrieve the information. The complexity feeds ambiguity.

If the question is too complex, then students are more likely to guess the answer. This could be tricky, as if they get it right, we do not know if it is because they really know the answer or if they just got lucky.

The same thing happens when students are given complex answering methods, such as answer-until-correct method where if students get the answer wrong on the first attempt, they can continue answering until they find the correct answer. However, research shows no benefits to using this method over having a traditional multiple-choice with immediate feedback.

2. Create questions with specific cognitive processes in mind 

When creating a multiple-choice test, each question included should measure a specific part of knowledge or thought process. For example, multiple-choice questions may be:

  • Requiring students to retrieve a fact
  • Contrasting two topics
  • Apply a theory to a new situation

By targeting specific parts of knowledge or thought processes, it allows us to help build up their schema and therefore, increase their rate of learning.

3. Avoid “none of the above” or “all of the above” options 

Generally speaking, it may be prudent to stay away from using these options. Why is this the case? Well, a “none of the above” option exposes students to many false answers. As research shows, this can result in a negative effect on students’ performance, as they continue to falsely select an incorrect answer.

On the other hand, if the “all of the above” option is correct, it can be useful as students are exposed to all the correct answers. However, if this option is not correct it can result in students believing that multiple false alternatives are true. Therefore, both of these options could be detrimental to students’ learning.

4. 3-4 is the magic number 

One of the biggest debates when creating a multiple-choice test is how many options to include. A meta-analysis that included studies from over 80 years found that having three options is the sweet spot. Having one correct answer and two lures creates the best balance between quality and efficiency.

However, this is a rough guide. It also depends on the number of plausible incorrect options that can be made. For example, if there are three suitable incorrect options, having four options might be the way to go.

5. Have moderately difficult tests

Tests should challenge students, but not be too difficult. In the review, researchers suggest that students should correctly answer an average of 77% (which seems to us to a very specific number!), which is slightly higher than the midpoint between what they would get by chance and perfect performance – and reminiscent of Rosenshine’s seventh Principle of Instruction.

Challenging students and having high expectations for them can help significantly improve their academic achievement. This is because students will subsequently raise their effort levels to live up to someone else’s high standards. However, if the work is too challenging, it could have a negative impact on their confidence. Therefore, finding the right balance is key.

6. Feedback is your secret weapon 

Arguably, the most important aspect when it comes to creating multiple choice tests is giving feedback. Following a multiple-choice test, students might pick up false information. Research has consistently shown that giving feedback helps eliminate this misunderstanding and improve students’ performance.

But when should you give feedback? Well, research shows that leaving a short delay before giving feedback may be beneficial to learning (though the research on this is somewhat conflicting depending on the exact conditions being measured).

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A new feature used on multiple-choice exams  

An increasingly popular add-on to multiple-choice exams is confidence ratings. This is when students answer the question, then rate their confidence in their answer. Research shows that using these features helps students perform better on subsequent tests. However, the research in this area is still being developed, so proceed with caution.

Final thoughts

Multiple-choice exams are quick to mark, are generally liked by students and a great way to study. Researchers have put together the six top features in designing a multiple-choice exam. Implementing these can help elevate your multiple-choice exams to the next level.

As always, context is key and there will be times you choose to deviate from the above guidelines. Perhaps the perfect multiple-choice test doesn’t exist, but hopefully these tips can help!

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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