3 Characteristics of Well-Written Multiple Choice Assessment Items

curriculum development for teachers

Well-written multiple choice assessment items can assess many levels of thinking.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to creating great multiple-choice assessment items. However, there are a few characteristics of a well-written item. Here are the 3 key features.

Although multiple choice items are appropriate to test concepts in lower taxonomic levels, they’re not limited to assess only lower order skills. Click To Tweet

They must assess higher-level thinking.

Although multiple choice items are appropriate to test concepts in lower taxonomic levels, they’re not limited to assess lower order skills. While it will definitely take some work to construct  a Level 3 or Level 4 item, the investment is worth the insight you can get into student knowledge.




They shouldn’t be solved by, or need, guesswork.

The second characteristic of a good multiple-choice assessment item is to allow students to think rather than guess. Having a limited number of answer choices is a double-edged sword. The assessment writer has control over the concepts present in the answer choices. This allows the writer to present distractors, such as common errors, that can assess if the student really understands a concept. Poorly written distractors, though, can put guesswork into play. Avoid using humorous, unrealistic, or otherwise easily eliminated distractors. They mislead or confuse the student.   

Download the free handout, Parts of a Well-Written Multiple Choice Item 

They are concise.

The precise use of words is absolutely at the heart of a good multiple choice assessment item. A question simply won’t be able to test a student’s content knowledge if the student is confused by unclear or poorly worded stems or answer choices. Every word in a multiple choice item counts. Reword both the stem and answer choices until they are clear, accurate, and written in grade-level-appropriate language.  

After you’ve used a multiple-choice assessment item, evaluate it with a critical eye. Ask these questions.

  • Were students successful in answering the question?
  • If so, why?
  • If not, how can you improve the item?

Although writing good multiple choice assessment items might seem easy, creating questions that truly get at “what students know” takes a good deal of practice. Developing this skill is worth the time for both the student and the assessment writer.  

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