How to Write Effective Multiple Choice Questions

Last Updated on April 22, 2023

By @EduTechSites via Facebook

The Game of Multiple Choice

When we give students a multiple choice question, we are asking them to play a sort of game. As educators, we’ve seen enough of these questions to implicitly know the rules: Read the question; Look over the possible answers; Select the best choice.

To call multiple choice a “review game” may sound irreverent or oversimplified. In the proper context, they are certainly an effective mode of questioning, but there’s a reason that this mode is used to create suspenseful entertainment on shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Multiple choice questions package potentially complicated puzzles into a compact, easily digestible format, making them great for primetime television producers, high school teachers, and standardized test writers alike.

However, an educator must assess their students’ content skills rather than their ability to play the game. The following guidelines will help determine what type of multiple choice questions to craft, depending on the type of knowledge we are trying to assess. Indeed, they may reveal, at times, that we should avoid multiple choice questions altogether.

What Skills Are Being Assessed?

It may sound obvious, but the crucial first step before writing any multiple choice question is determining what exact student skill you want to measure. The multiple choice format offers efficient, uniform grading on the backend, and once the questions are created, there is little work on the frontend to reuse the questions year after year. This convenience makes the multiple choice format tempting to use just because “It’s what I’ve always done.” But is it what’s best for students to show their learning?

Multiple choice is limited in the type of thinking it can adequately assess. Consider the following type of skills and abilities, as outlined by the popular framework of Bloom’s Taxonomy: Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating, and Creating. We’ll see ways in which multiple choice questions can—and cannot—assess these skills appropriately.


The multiple choice format is excellent for assessing this base-level skill. Students can show their ability to remember basic information through questions, such as:

Who wrote A Tale of Two Cities?

  1. Charles Dickens
  2. Jane Austen
  3. Wilkie Collins
  4. Samuel Clemens

Such questions can be especially useful as formative assessments just after new content has been introduced. Quick multiple choice quizzes (10-20 questions) with online programs like Review Game Zone or Pear Deck work well for measuring what students have learned at the end of a lesson.

Understanding and Applying

Multiple choice questions can also assess students’ ability to not just recall but also understand and apply a concept within a given context. Consider another example from A Tale of Two Cities:

What is the best description of Sydney Carton’s relationship with Charles Darnay?

  1. They are brothers.
  2. They are foil characters.
  3. They are both French aristocrats.
  4. They are both static characters.

Here, the student must first remember the definition of a “foil character” as well as the details of Carton and Darnay’s individual character qualities and relationship. Then, the student must show that she correctly understands the connection between these concepts by choosing to accurately apply the term “foil character” to this relationship. Indirectly, she is also being assessed on her recollection and understanding of the term “static character,” recognizing that it does not apply to both of these characters.


It is possible to assess a student’s ability to analyze within the multiple choice format. (Indeed, it will be measured by this mode if they take advanced standardized assessments such as AP Literature & Composition or AP U.S. History, among others.) However, instructors should craft analytical multiple choice questions carefully, recognizing that multiple types of product-oriented assessments—like essays, presentations, class debates, discussions, or long-term multimedia projects—will be needed to truly measure a student’s ability to analyze.

Consider the following passage and questions from a practice test for the AP U.S. History exam:

“We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing the unanimous opinion of the United States Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 1954

A question that would not properly measure a student’s ability to analyze might read:

Which of the following was the most immediate result of the decision excerpted?

  1. Radicals critiqued government actions as doing too little to transform the racial status quo.
  2. Education advocates raised awareness of the effect of poverty on students’ opportunities.
  3. Civil rights activists became increasingly divided over tactical and philosophical issues.
  4. Segregationists in southern states temporarily closed many public schools in an effort to resist the decision.

Such a question does measure the student’s ability to recall and understand the historical consequences of Brown v. Board, but it doesn’t require her to more broadly analyze why this immediate result took place.

A question that more accurately measures an analysis of the passage would read:

The decision excerpted most directly reflected a growing belief after the Second World War that the power of the federal government should be used to

  1. promote greater racial justice
  2. revitalize cities
  3. foster economic opportunity
  4. defend traditional visions of morality

Here, the student is required to recall the historical context of this case, apply that memory to the language of the decision, and analyze which answer choice is best reflected within the evidence of the excerpt.

Keep in mind that assessing analysis with limited answer choices will inevitably leave students with the “process of elimination” option. Thus, the most well-crafted analytical multiple choice questions will always be more limited in their ability to assess this skill than assignments that require students to make more open-ended decisions based on their ability to remember and apply information.

Evaluate and Create

The abilities to evaluate and create form the pinnacle of Bloom’s Taxonomy. They should therefore be a part of the culminating assessment in any unit. While traditional multiple choice questions cannot provide students with a genuine opportunity to create work that can be assessed (They can only respond to what the instructor has created for them.), research suggests that having students create their own multiple choice questions with plausible alternative answers can be an effective strategy for building and applying foundational knowledge within a unit. Students can then present their questions to the class and defend their creative decisions, evaluating why certain questions may be more effective than others.

General Guidelines for Creating Multiple Choice Questions

Once you’re sure that the type of skill you need to assess can be adequately measured with the multiple choice format you want to use, consider these general guidelines as you craft your questions (or, “stems”) and answer choices:

Make the structure of each stem consistent. If your questions are mainly assessing students’ ability to remember foundational knowledge, end them as a complete question. Such as:

Which of the following represents a factorial of 5?

  1. 5#
  2. 5-1
  3. 5%
  4. 5!

Rather than:

A factorial of 5 is represented by:

  1. 5#
  2. 5…
  3. 5%
  4. 5!

Asking students to think in complete thoughts will aid memory retention. Consistently asking them with this interrogative structure will prevent them from having to mentally reconfigure what the question is actually asking, allowing students to focus on displaying their knowledge rather than the structure of the assessment. (Of course, if you are teaching for a standardized test, such as APs, then you may not have the freedom to implement this sort of consistency. See link for examples.)

Avoid “All/None of the above” answers. We’ve all seen “All of the above” or “None of the above” answers on multiple choice assessments, and we likely saw them as obvious hints, if these answer choices were only offered a few times.

Unless we’re willing to be consistent and put one or both of these options at the end of every single answer choice, we should avoid using them. They present students with an obvious anomaly that signals “pick me,” which at least gives the answer away or, at worst, plays mind-games with students.

Additionally, “All/None of the above” groups the rest of the answer choices together, which doesn’t require students to reason by weeding out plausible but incorrect choices.

Give plausible alternative answer choices. By using incorrect answer choices that sound plausible and incorporate legitimate class content, we keep the questions rigorous and require that students think through the material we want them to know even if it’s not being assessed directly in a given question.

Consider this example from earlier:

What is the best description of Sydney Carton’s relationship with Charles Darnay?

  1. They are brothers.
  2. They are foil characters.
  3. They are both French aristocrats.
  4. They are both static characters.

Assuming that both “foil character” and “static character” were terms discussed throughout the unit, the student must recall and understand the definition of each in order to answer the questions correctly. Even though “static character” is not the correct choice, the student must indirectly show her knowledge of it.

Consider the same question with a less plausible answer choice:

What is the best description of Sydney Carton’s relationship with Charles Darnay?

  1. They are brothers.
  2. They are foil characters.
  3. They are both French aristocrats.
  4. They are both contestants on America’s Got Talent.

This version eliminates a skill necessary to answer the previous version correctly (i.e. recalling the definition of “static character”)—all from making a single answer choice less plausible.

Key Takeaways

Once you’ve determined the type of skills you need to assess, make sure that the multiple choice format is appropriate and choose the proper question type.

When crafting questions, be consistent in your structure for both stems and answer choices. Don’t vary stem structures unless you have to. Remember that plausible answer choices can significantly increase the amount of learning that students must show in order to answer a question correctly.

All of these guidelines are about reducing the confusion of the multiple choice game so that students are empowered to show their abilities as learners rather than their abilities as test takers. Once you have mastered writing multiple choice questions, turn them into fun review games. Simply input the question and answer choices to have games automatically created with your data. The content in the games is fully personalized and customized to suit your student's needs. You can even track your student’s progress and results within the games. Click here to Sign Up for a free account.

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