Putting Assessment to the Test: 3 Characteristics of Good Multiple Choice Items

Multiple choice test
It’s the question at the forefront of every assessment writer’s mind: “How can I really find out what students know?” All types of assessments have limitations, and multiple choice items are certainly no exception. However, if written well, this type of assessment can give you a good (and quick) sense of student knowledge.

Multiple choice assessment

If written well, multiple choice items can assess many levels of thinking.

While there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to creating great multiple-choice assessment items, there are a few characteristics of good questions that test writers working in almost every type of educational content should know. Here are three of them.

  1. They assess higher-level thinking.

Although multiple choice items are certainly appropriate to test concepts in lower taxonomic levels, they’re not limited to asking students to do tasks like simply choosing the right vocabulary word or solving a problem. While it will definitely take some work to construct a scenario that has the information a student needs to answer a Level 3 or Level 4 item, the investment is worth the insight you can get into student knowledge.

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

Having a limited number of options with which to answer a question has the potential to be a double-edged sword. On one hand, the assessment writer has control over the concepts present in the answer choices. This allows the question writer to present the student with distractors, such as common errors, that can help to define whether the student really understands a concept. Poorly written distractors, though, can put guesswork into play. Humorous, unrealistic, or otherwise easily eliminated distractors shouldn’t be used, and distractors that are deliberately misleading or confusing should likewise be avoided.   

  1. They are concise.

Whether or not you agree that brevity is the soul of wit, the precise use of words is absolutely at the heart of a good multiple choice 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. Both the stem and answer choices should be reworked until they are clear, accurate, and written in grade-level-appropriate language.  

After you’ve used an assessment item, plan to step back and look at it with a critical eye. Were students successful in answering the question? If so, why? If not, how can the item be improved? Although writing good multiple choice assessment items might seem to be easy, creating questions that truly get at “what students know” takes a good deal of practice. However, developing this skill is worth the time for both the student and the assessment writer.  


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