4 Simple Tips for Improving your Multiple Choice Questions
We’ve recently launched Carousel’s multiple choice function, enabling you to use your question banks either for short answer response or for multiple choice. This is the first in a three-part blog-series looking at how to use multiple choice questions (MCQs) in a Teaching and Learning sense as opposed to a technical “how do I get it to work” sense (for that, click here).
MCQs can be extremely powerful for assessment, for identifying misconceptions and for retrieval practice. They are, however, very tricky to get right. Fortunately, there is a wealth of advice from the teacher and researcher communities to draw upon when writing MCQs and implementing them in class. In this post we will look at some simple top tips for MCQ usage. In the next post, we will look at timing and when MCQs should best be placed when we consider learning over time. In the final post, we will look at something called “negative suggestion” and why feedback on MCQs is so important.
First up, the tips:
Multiple Choice Tip Number 1: write plausible distractors
Which question is better?
I imagine most people would pick the first option. The reason for that is because students can get the “right” answer to the second question without really knowing what photosynthesis is. Provided they know that the other responses are “wrong”, they can get the right answer by a process of elimination. You therefore need to make sure your “choices” are plausible distractors. If they aren’t, you weaken the power of the question.
This might seem obvious, but there is plenty of research to suggest that getting plausible distractors is extremely difficult, and not as common as you would think. It is therefore incumbent upon us to devote extra energy and attention to making sure our distractors are plausible. Some of the literature even goes so far as to call them “lures” rather than distractors — your “wrong” answers should be more than merely distracting — they should be so plausible that they “lure” students towards them.
Multiple Choice Tip Number 2: Don’t use “none of the above”
If a student knows that all the responses in a question are incorrect and therefore chooses “none of the above,” they may have got the question right, but they haven’t done any retrieval practice. Remember that the whole point of this kind of quizzing is to get students to retrieve the correct answer to strengthen their memory of it. “None of the above” means that this might not happen — they are merely noting answers as “wrong” rather than retrieving the “right” answer. This theoretical argument has a modest grounding in empirical research, showing that having none of the above as the correct answer in a multiple choice quiz can negate some of retrieval practice’s beneficial memory effects. More research is definitely needed, but in the meantime it’s probably best avoided.
Multiple Choice Tip Number 3: Aim for a desirable difficulty sweet spot
If a question is too hard, you flummox students. This could lead to problems down the road in terms of their motivation and their knowledge (see blog post 3). Make it too easy, and there isn’t enough cognitive activity involved to make the experience worthwhile. Instead, aim for what cognitive scientists refer to as a “desirable difficulty” — a level of challenge that is not too hard and not too easy.
That isn’t a huge amount of concrete guidance, but luckily MCQ maestro Dr Andy Butler puts some numbers to it and suggests that “the ideal difficulty level is a bit higher than the midpoint between chance and perfect performance”. My calculations for a 4 choice MCQ run as:
Chance = 25%
Perfect performance = 100%
Midway = 62.5%
“A bit higher” ≈ 65–75%
You’ll get extremely rich data from a Carousel MCQ, so you’ll be able to not only figure out which quizzes were outside of the “desirable difficulty” range, but which questions were too. It’s all a bit ball park, but it’s a good start.
Multiple Choice Tip Number 4: Get reading
There are tons of articles out there with more wisdom on multiple choice questions, and as mentioned at the start, we’ll be publishing another couple in due course. In the meantime, try reading:
●Joe Kirby on MCQs and writing distractors here
●Daisy Christodoulou has a short series on MCQs starting here
●Blake Harvard has written tons on MCQs, check out his blog here
●Andy Butler (as above) has written a really good summary guide for teachers here.
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