17 Apr 2019

Bite-sized Assessments: Crafting Effective Multiple Choice Questions

Submitted by Katherine Nicole Crowder, University of Mary Washington

Are you sick of scouring through test banks looking for the perfect multiple choice question to address exactly what you want to ask your class?

Do your students typically perform poorly on the multiple choice portion of your exams, even though they should be MC champions from their years of standardized tests?

If either of these is true, maybe you should think of crafting your own multiple choice questions. In Marcy Towns’ Journal of Chemical Education article (, you can learn how to write effective multiple choice questions – ones that assess a single well-defined learning objective, that ask students to apply knowledge rather than simply recall it, and that discriminate between high and low achieving students. The article also provides some great ways to evaluate the efficacy of your new MC questions.

If writing your own questions seems daunting, the article contains lessons that can help you improve existing questions: answers should be arranged vertically, numerical answers should be in either ascending or descending order, and text-based answers should be approximately the same length and complexity. In addition, Towns recommends avoiding the use of “all of the above” or “none of the above,” which essentially turns the question into multiple true/false statements.

As final exams loom, it may be a good time to evaluate your multiple choice questions with this research in mind. Happy reading – and writing!


Thanks, Nicole, for this awesome BITeS post! This paper is a great resource that will help anyone who routinely writes multiple-choice questions and/or evaluates which ones to use. An important point that Towns and coauthors make is that all wrong answer choices (distractors) should be plausible, such as arising from a common error or misconception. This is important because in most cases on multiple-choice questions students aren't asked why they choose an answer. Having plausible distractors helps instructors with gleaning some information about how to improve learning.