Top ten tips for writing effective Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs)

MCQ-GraphicMultiple Choice Questions (MCQs) are an important method for assessing knowledge and understanding within vocational qualifications.  This is particularly the case given the rise of on-line assessment systems such as Just Assess (offered by SFJ Awards). Effective MCQs provide an indication that the learner has retained important information, principles and concepts relating to a specific subject matter.  For this reason, competent and up to date subject experts need to be involved in writing MCQs to ensure that the subject content is appropriate.  However, the technical writing skills involved in producing effective MCQs is often overlooked.

Before I provide a few tips for writing effective MCQs it is important to consider what a typical MCQ looks like.  A typical MCQ will include a stem which defines the testing point and a number of correct options for the learner to select (usually one or more).   There are many variations on this structure, but for the purposes of this short article we will consider the most common approach an example of which is provided below.

Which three countries border Luxemburg?

  1. France
  2. Netherlands
  3. Germany
  4. Belgium

In this example, the question is clearly put and includes a reference to the number of correct answers (which is good practice).  Such clarity is important in question writing so that learners have as fair a chance as possible to understand what is being asked.  The importance of clarity in MCQs is a fundamental point that underpins all the points tips provided below.

  1. Grounded in the subject level

MCQs should be relevant to the construct of the subject matter that is being put to the test.  The construct is a definition of what is required of the learner at the subject level.  MCQs that drift away from this construct (either too simple or too hard) can lead to inappropriate test results.  For this reason, it is important to establish the scope and level of the subject matter that is being tested prior to writing the MCQs.

  1. Make sure there is only one question and not several questions embedded into one statement

This sounds obvious but is often overlooked in MCQ writing.  Subject experts are naturally fixated on the principles and concepts that are being tested, and these may often be fairly complex matters. It is very easy in these situations to inadvertently produce a long winded question that contains several embedded questions.

  1. There must be enough words to explain what is required of the learner

At the other end of the spectrum are questions that contain too little information to provide clarity to the learner.  In these cases, subject experts may have internalised knowledge and understanding to such an extent that they make assumptions about others level of understanding.  The balance is in providing the optimum number of words to explain what is required of the learner.

  1. Use options that make the learner think

The list of options (responses) should make the learner think through the subject matter and the question that is being asked.  One of the myths around MCQs is that they only test ‘recall’, but a well written MCQ can provide a measure of in-depth knowledge and understanding of a subject.  An example of this might be a question that provides a scenario and a set of options that make the learner think about the best possible response to the scenario.  This approach is far removed from simple recall and enables learners to show their reasoning and decision making potential.

  1. Don’t use ‘spoilers’

There is a myth around MCQ writing that suggests one of the responses should be very clearly a wrong answer.  These responses are sometimes referred to as ‘spoilers’.  The problem with spoilers is that they improve the chances of the learner guessing the correct answer.  Avoid using such spoilers in MCQ writing.

  1. Minimise the possibility of guessing correct answers

This point is also touched on in my tip about the avoidance of spoilers.  An effective collection of MCQs (the test or exam in its totality) will make a pass for an undeserving learner very unlikely, as long as the pass score is greater than the guessing probability (e.g. for 4 options, cut score >25% marks).  So a test or exam made up of effective MCQs will not lead to learners being able to guess their way to success.

  1. Make the answers more or less the same length

It is helpful in the creation of MCQs if the possible answers to a question are more or less the same length (i.e. similar number of words).  This is to reduce the likelihood of one or more of the options standing out from the others.  For the learner, a potential response that is unlike the other responses (e.g. much less text, much more text, very differently worded) may lead to confusion as to the correct answer, even in the event of them knowing the correct answer.

  1. Grammar

All the accepted rules of grammar apply to MCQ writing.  This sounds obvious but I have seen many, many examples of poor grammar in MCQs produced by reputable and professional organisations.  Where a question ends with a question mark (?) the possible answers become sentences in their own right and therefore begin with a capital and end with a full stop.  Where the MCQ requires a sentence completion the possible answers begin with a lower case letter and end with a full stop.

  1. Avoid repetition of text in the options

The stem statement should contain as much information as is required to give the learner a clear indication of what is expected.  This information should not be repeated in the options.  It is very easy to fall into this trap when using sentence completion in the stem and this should also be avoided.

  1. A fresh pair of eyes

If you are writing MCQs it’s always useful to get another person to read through them and comment on them.  This person may or may not be a subject expert and the following questions would provide a focus for their review:

– Is the stem unambiguous?

– Are the options clearly written?

– Does the stem statement lead clearly into the options (in all cases)?

In cases where there are a great many MCQs to review these three points will help with the feedback.

There are other tips which could be included in this article but if you are new to MCQ writing and you stick to the above wisdoms this will greatly improve your MCQs.  Happy question writing!

Martin Christie
Qualifications and Product Development Manager
SFJ Awards