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Learning to Write Multiple Choice Questions

CBSE has decided that the first Board examination for class 10 and 12 students to be conducted in November or December 2021 will have only multiple-choice questions. This is a huge step forward for school examinations in India. So, far MCQs have either been avoided completely or used very casually.


This blog is in continuation of a previous blog I wrote in November 2020: Step-wise Guide to Create Effective Multiple Choice Questions. On the 48th episode of Friday@5 scheduled for 23rd July 2021, we are going to discuss how to write accurate MCQs. You can register for this episode here.

MCQs have been around for a long time. In fact, almost all high stake examinations rely on MCQs. Both the GRE and TOEFL I took in 1988 were MCQs. These exams are offered by ESL, which is the world's largest testing agency. I am sharing this to shed any doubts in your mind about MCQs being a reliable method to check students' learnings.


Now, let us dig into writing an MCQ. Each MCQ has two parts:

  • Stem [Context, Prompt]

  • Options [Correct answer, Distractors]

Example MCQ 1

Radha teaches geography to class 8 in a school in Kanpur. She has been asked to create a multiple-choice test for her students. She has never made such a test earlier. What strategy should she use to write the questions?

A. Write the stems of all the questions and then create their options.

B. Write the stem and options of one question at a time

C. Write the prompt of all questions first and then decide the contexts and options

D. Convert the subjective questions in the book into MCQs by adding options

In the example, the context is:

Radha teaches geography to class 8 in a school in Kanpur. She has been asked to create a multiple-choice test for her students. She has never made such a test earlier.


The prompt is: What strategy should she use to write the questions?

The correct answer is:

B. Write the stem and options of one question at a time


The distractors are:

A. Write the stems of all the questions and then create their options.

C. Write the prompt of all questions first and then decide the contexts and options

D. Convert the subjective questions in the book into MCQs by adding options


First, we will learn how to write the stems.


 

Writing a Stem

A stem consists of a context that provides certain information to the student. This context can be:

  • fictional: created by your imagination

  • real-life scenario (actual or perceived)

  • visual (graph, image, video, etc)

  • authentic information from a source (book, website, newspaper, etc)

The context should contain all and only the information that a student necessarily needs to answer the question. We need to understand the meaning of "all and only".


The context should NOT have any information, word, phrases, numbers, etc that are redundant and irrelevant for answering the question. In the example above, to answer the question, do you need to know what class or subject Radha teaches? Or which city is her school located in? These are all redundant pieces of information. These should not be there. The revised context would look like this:


Radha has to create a multiple-choice test for her students for the first time.


Now, think about the phrase, "for her students". Is this required? Would students need this information to answer the question? If not, this phrase should also go.


The re-revised context will be:


Radha has to create a multiple-choice test for the first time.


To finalize the context for an MCQ, you will need to read it several times and edit it as required till you get the most precise, concise, and relevant context. That is your goal.


 

Now, let us learn to write the prompt.


Prompts have to be direct, easy to understand, and clear. Students should not have to put in too much effort to understand what you expect from them. You are NOT trying to trick them. Your effort is to find out if they have achieved the necessary learning outcome.


The prompt used in our example was: What strategy should she use to write the questions?


Since she was asked to create a test, a more accurate prompt would be:


What strategy should she use to create the test?


Prompts should always be complete questions. A bad prompt in this case would be:


To create the test, Radha should...


Such in-complete sentences are never good prompts.


Sometimes changing a single word can alter the question significantly. Let us consider the replacing the word 'use' with 'prefer'. Read the following prompt:


What strategy should she prefer to create the test?


If you are using the word 'prefer' you are indicating that more than one of the strategies provided in the options are correct. But, one of them is 'better' than the others. And, the student must know which one is 'better'. The reality however, is that only one of the suggested strategies in the options is correct.


This brings me to another very important point. You must have a good knowledge of the language to create good MCQs. You must understand the nuances of using synonyms. You must know the exact meaning of each word used in the question. And, apart from the vocabulary, the grammar, punctuation, and the syntax of your questions must be correct.


Use negative prompts only if these are absolutely necessary. In such cases make sure to highlight the words or phrases of negation. An example of such prompts is:


Which of these Prime Ministers of India was NOT born before India's independence?


It takes amount of practice to write good stems. But, luckily there is a lot of help available which I will share at the end. But, let me for now, talk about the options.

 

Writing the options

In a typical multiple chocie question, there are either 4 or 5 options with one correct answer and the remaining distractors. There can be more options too, but these are rarely seen. The chances of guessing the correct answer reduces significantly if there are 5 options. But, the drawback is that your effort to make a question increases by a lot more than 20% because you have to think of an additional distractor.


There are two important things you need to learn:

  1. How to choose distractors?

  2. How to express/present distractors?

Contrary to popular perception and practice, choosing good distractors is the hardest aspect of making a multiple-choice question. Distractors can even modify the difficulty level and depth-of-knowledge (DoK) level of the question.


Observe the two MCQs below. Do you feel altering the distractors has changed the nature of the question? Is one of them easier to answer then the other?


Example MCQ 2

Which of these Prime Ministers of India was NOT born before India's independence?

A. Jawahar Lal Nehru

B. Lal Bahadur Shastri

C. Indira Gandhi

D. Narender Modi


Example MCQ 3

Which of these Prime Ministers of India was NOT born before India's independence?

A. Rajiv Gandhi

B. Inder Kumar Gujral

C. H.D. Deve Gowda

D. Narender Modi


So, how do choose good distractors? Distractors emerge from the common mistakes or conceptual misconceptions associated to the learning outcome which is being assessed. Any other means to write distractors does not work.


Thus, to write good distractors you need to have a very good conceptual understanding of the topic as well as pedagogical mastery.


The distractors in example 1 were:

A. Write the stems of all the questions and then create their options.

C. Write the prompt of all questions first and then decide the contexts and options

D. Convert the subjective questions in the book into MCQs by adding options


Each of these are common errors that teachers make to mke MCQ tests. They are not equally common, but you can always find many teachers using these strategies.


After the test, analyse how many students picked each of the choices. If no student picked a particular distractor then you need to replace it with some other distractor for the next test.


Now, the last part. How do you write/express distractors? Here are 6 tips.

  1. All distractors should be approximately of equal length.

  2. Use simple language that is easily understandable by students.

  3. If all options begin with the same phrase/words, include these in the stem.

  4. Arrange the distractors in a logical sequence - alphabetic, chronic order, or order of magnitude, etc.

  5. Do not use "all of the above" and "none of the above" as options

  6. Avoid complex options such as, "A and D", "A, B and D", etc.


 

Next Steps

Learning to write good MCQs takes time and practice. So, keep creating MCQs. Here are three suggestions to help you learn faster.

  1. Study the MCQs used in globally reputed tests like GRE, GMAT, ToEFL, etc.

  2. Analyse the questions used in KBC

  3. Find MCQ tests in your subject area (or a related subject) and analyse each question.

Lastly, do attend the Friday@5 session on 23rd July. Register here.


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