Friday, September 20, 2013

Writing good multiple-choice questions

by Derek Spencer

Here's the thing: writing good multiple-choice questions is hard. I'm sure those of you who have spent hours creating your own tests can attest to that.

The following article lays out some good ground rules for writing multiple-choice questions. Check it out at the link below, then come back for a little commentary.

Here are some of my thoughts:

The type of multiple-choice question you'll want to use depends completely upon the learning objective you want to meet. Ms. Bartlett lists four types of questions:
  • Recall information
  • Understand concepts
  • Apply knowledge
  • Analyze information
Before you start to write your questions, think about the objective you want your students to achieve. If your questions are intended primarily as plot review, for example, then you'll write "recall information" questions. These require lower-order thinking skills, as they require students to comprehend what they've read and relay that to you.

If you're asking students to analyze information, however, you're asking them to use higher-order thinking skills. A question that asks students to show how a specific use of a literary device affects the passage is a question that requires this sort of analysis — and it's more challenging. These are the kinds of questions students are going to encounter on AP English exams, and they'll need practice if they're going to succeed.

All the points under the "Answers should be" section are strong. When you're writing the incorrect answers (we like to call them "distractors" here), they must be plausible in context. If you ask students to read a passage and then answer five multiple-choice questions, the distractors for those questions must make sense in the context of that passage. Using information from a different part of the book for a distractor is, in my opinion, unfair — it's sort of like a trick.

Distractors also need to be consistent. If one distractor is significantly different from the others, it will draw students' attention, and they'll be more likely to choose it (provided it's plausible, of course) than the others.

The "Questions about Behavior" section presents some good ideas for using multiple-choice questions as a diagnostic tool to evaluate your own teaching.

How do you use multiple-choice questions in your classroom? Do you find them useful? Let us know in the comments! Have a great weekend, and we'll see you next time.

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House.

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