Multiple-Choice Question: How many multiple-choice questions have you answered in your life?
A. More than you can shake a No. 2 pencil at
B. So many that you dream about filling in bubbles
C. Too many to count, but you’re pretty sure the answer is D
D. All of the above
Answer: D. All of the above.
Multiple-choice questions (MCQs) are the most popular way for trainers to assess what their learners know, and for good reason. MCQs are fast to write, easy to grade, and they give trainers objective performance data.
But there’s a problem: Just because MCQs are used often doesn’t mean they’re used well. As some of our trainers are fond of saying, “Garbage in, garbage out.”
Poorly written MCQs give you unreliable training data. When your data is unreliable, it’s harder for you to know where to focus your precious training time. On top of that, your learners can become confused, frustrated, and disengaged from the training they need to succeed in their jobs.
Our team has helped trainers write thousands of MCQs, so we created this guide to help you understand:
- The 4 biggest mistakes trainers make when creating MCQs.
- The 4 qualities that great MCQs have in common.
- A checklist of tactical tips to help you write your next batch of MCQs
What are the biggest mistakes trainers make when writing multiple-choice questions?
Ineffective multiple-choice questions fall into 4 types of traps:
- Questions test recall, not application
- Confusing wording
- Answers are easy for learners to guess
- Trick questions
1. Questions test recall, not application
“When am I ever going to use this?” Since school days, learners have complained about MCQs that drill them on irrelevant information. The same problem exists in the workplace. By far the most common gripe we hear from dissatisfied learners is that their training isn’t relevant for them.
To avoid this error, always ask yourself, “How will this MCQ help my learners do their jobs?” If a question doesn’t relate to your learners’ real-world responsibilities, you may not need to include the question at all!
2. Answers are easy for learners to guess
Learners can get a rush of adrenaline when they decode the correct answer based on clues in the question. But “guessing” isn’t the same as “learning,” and these kinds of questions don’t prepare your learners to do their jobs.
The goal of your training is to prepare your team for problems they’ll face in the real world, where they won’t have other options in front of them. Giving hints or more obvious answers only undermines the purpose of your question and fails to provide you with meaningful learning data.
Consider the following example:
If sparks from the wood-burning fire pit ignite materials outside of the fire pit, you should:
A) Unintended consequences of an outdoor fire
B) Any chairs should be moved away from the fire
C) Put out the fire with water from a garden hose or a fire blanket
The wording of the answer options reveals the answer — only option C produces a grammatically correct sentence. Since the question only has 3 potential answers, it’s easy for learners to guess the right answer.
3. Confusing wording
You don’t want your learners wasting time on a question trying to figure out what it means. The question should be clear enough that they can understand it on the first read-through.
To avoid this issue, try reading your questions aloud before you publish them. If you stumble over any phrases, consider revising them to make them as clear and concise as possible.
To maximize clarity, avoid using double negatives and words like “often,” “sometimes,” or “might.” These can be confusing and lead to incorrect answers. Studies have also shown that questions with negative phrasing can be particularly challenging to understand.
4. Trick Questions
There are many valid ways to increase the difficulty of your question, but using trick questions should not be one of them.
Trick questions attempt to mislead learners and test their ability to find hidden meaning or nuances in the question, rather than their knowledge of the subject matter. This can make learners feel like they are being tricked or set up to fail, which is demotivating and can reduce engagement in training.
The other problem with trick questions is that they generate useless data that provides limited insight into your learners’ growth. Your training time (and your learners’ trust) is precious – don’t waste it!
Consider the following example:
When did Ronald Reagan become President of the United States of America?
More than testing the learners’ knowledge about the United States, this question is testing their ability to parse through individual numbers and avoid getting confused by the similarity between answers.
Characteristics of effective multiple-choice questions
To maximize the effectiveness of your multiple-choice questions, apply these 4 principles:
- Connect each question to a specific learning outcome
- Ask learners to apply their knowledge
- Anticipate common mistakes
- Include feedback
1. Connect each question to a specific learning outcome
This is the heart of any well-written MCQ.
Your training exists to help your team do their jobs. You’re not assessing an learner’s ability to memorize information or having them demonstrate test-taking skills.
By ensuring that your MCQ is tied to a specific learning objective, you can focus on creating questions that actually test your learner’s ability to apply their knowledge in the real world.
When tying questions to learning objectives, make sure that the objectives are clear and measurable. By doing this, you’re able to clearly identify whether or not the learner has achieved the objective.
2. Ask learners to apply their knowledge
Your training is meant to test if learners can use what they’ve learned in real-world situations. To make sure they can, ask them how they’ll use the information in their jobs.
To create effective questions, you should focus on scenarios that your learners are likely to face in their roles. Don’t waste time testing obscure corner cases or abstract principles. Make the assessment concrete and practical.
One effective technique is to incorporate role-play into multiple-choice questions. For instance, instead of simply quizzing your new restaurant staff about dishes on the menu, you could ask: “A guest says she is in the mood for seafood and informs you that she has a gluten allergy. Which of the following dishes would you recommend?”
3. Anticipate mistakes
The most effective training helps learners make mistakes in a low-stakes environment. That way, they can learn from their mistakes in training and avoid making the same mistakes on the job.
As a trainer, you can facilitate this process by drawing from the most frequent (or highest-impact) mistakes you’ve seen learners make in the field. Anticipate those mistakes and incorporate them into the wrong answer choices of your MCQs. These wrong answer choices are called “distractors” – more on that in a moment. This approach helps learners spot their own knowledge gaps early and identify what they need to practice.
4. Include feedback
To learn and improve, learners need timely, relevant feedback that guides them toward success. Research has shown that receiving immediate feedback after an assessment enhances retention of correct answers and improves retention of low-confidence answers.
When learners receive feedback indicating an incorrect answer, there’s a window of opportunity for learning. They are more receptive to an explanation of the correct answer and why their answer was wrong.
But, poorly communicated feedback results in poor retention. Effective feedback is concise, stating the correct answer and providing context for why the other options are incorrect. This is particularly critical in eLearning environments, where personalized feedback is easier to provide than in traditional classrooms.
In order to learn and improve, learners need to receive timely, relevant feedback that guides them toward success. Research has shown that receiving feedback immediately after an assessment improves the retention of correct answers and enhances learner retention in low-confidence answers.
Tactical tips for writing your next multiple-choice question
Here are some practical tips you can use right away to make your MCQs better.
Key Parts of a Multiple-Choice Question
Every multiple-choice question has 3 parts, with specific best practices for writing each component. First, let’s clarify the terms:
- The Stem: This is the base of the question, which identifies the problem the question presents.
- The Distractors: The incorrect answer options.
- The Correct Answer: This is the answer option that is correct.
How to Write an Excellent Stem
- Keep it short and simple. You don’t want to have your learners spend the bulk of their energy and time trying to understand the question.
- Your stem should present a definite problem. Focus on assessing learning outcomes, not the learner’s ability to draw inferences from vague language.
- Avoid including unnecessary information. Don’t distract or confuse the learner.
- Focus on one concept per question. This way, you’ll be able to accurately zero in on exactly what concept your learner is struggling with
- Write your stem as a question or partial sentence. This way, your learner can focus on answering the question rather than on the order of the wording.
How to Write Effective Distractors
- Keep them plausible. Make sure each distractor could be reasonably selected by the learner. Common misconceptions and learner errors provide the best source of distractors.
- Make them clear and concise. You don’t want to assess the learner’s reading ability with wordy distractors.
- Keep them consistent. Write all answer options in the same format to avoid providing clues to the learner.
- Use 3-4 distractors. Research suggests that more than 4 distractors are overwhelming, while less than 3 improves guessing odds.
- Avoid “All of the above” and “None of the above”. These answers can provide clues to the correct answer, which you want to avoid.
- Avoid overlapping options. Ensure that distractors are mutually exclusive to avoid confusion. If both ‘might’ be true, the learner will have difficulty choosing the correct answer
How to Write Effective Correct Answers
- Keep it the same length as your distractors. Prevent guessing based on the length or detail of the answer.
- Force the learner to think. Avoid copying the answer from the training material and instead, reword it in a slightly different way to test their understanding.
- Keep consistent grammar. Make sure your answer is grammatically consistent with the stem and other options. You don’t want to accidentally misguide the learner or give away the answer.
Make sure multiple-choice is the right question for you
Now that you have this guide to creating multiple-choice questions, it’s important to know that MCQs aren’t always the best choice for every learning situation.
Depending on what you want to achieve and how challenging you want the assessment to be, you might want to consider other types of assessments like short-response, essays, hands-on training, or video-based assessments. Make sure to think about your learning goals and select the assessment type that best evaluates your learners’ understanding.