Do’s and don’ts for creating multiple-choice tests

by Michael Stone
Master’s student, University of Florida

As college class sizes continue to increase, the odds are good that most university teachers have used, or will have to use, multiple-choice testing in their careers. Though the phrase “multiple choice” is sometimes considered a devaluation of education, this type of testing can still be scholarly and challenging—if the proper techniques are utilized.  Here are some do’s and don’ts to keep in mind while crafting the questions and answers.

Do’s

  1. Include many questions, but not too many. The odds of a student getting a 70 or above on a two-question test by guessing blindly are 1 in 16. For a five-question test, it’s 1 in 64. Tests with few questions could lead to students passing without any more effort than it takes to pencil in a bubble. But once you get to 15 questions, the odds jump to 1 in 8,607, and they climb exponentially with every few questions added after that. Don’t get too excessive, though, because you want students to have enough time to actively think about each question and choice. Depending on the class’s scheduled length, 30 to 50 questions will likely be a good target to shoot for.
  2. Spread answers evenly. To ensure blanket guessing isn’t rewarded, the correct answers should be pretty evenly divided — about 25 percent per answer for tests with four answer choices (A, B, C, D); 20 percent for five answer choices (A, B, C, D, E); and so on.
  3. Have an objective with every question. In other words, don’t create questions just to have enough questions for the test. Before write them, consider specific student learning objectives that are based in the course’s material that students should have learned prior to test day. For example, in a test involving journalistic writing for a media class, you may want to test students’ AP style abilities. In that case, you could have them select which one of four sentences is written correctly in AP style.
  4. Prevent cheating. Though there are no methods guaranteed to fully prevent academic dishonesty, some simple strategies will discourage it. They are: create separate test forms so those sitting side-by-side can’t copy; have students sit every-other seat as they come in so friends won’t be beside one another; require students to sign an academic honesty pledge; and recruit proctors.

Avoid

  1.  Don’t use improper grammar or punctuation. Students can have difficulty answering a question that has incorrect grammar or punctuation. As is true with all life’s writings, proofread, proofread, proofread. Don’t be afraid to ask a colleague to read over your tests, possibly even setting up a system where you could trade off reading drafts of each other’s exams.
  2. Don’t format tests awkwardly. As the United States learned in the 2000 presidential election, formatting can become a bigger issue than what’s actually being voted on — or in teachers’ case, what material is being test. Create a very simple and straightforward layout by not bunching questions and answers together in a giant paragraph. Each answer should be its own line on the page, or perhaps should even have an extra line of blank space between it and the next answer. Formatting is another issue that could be tackled by trading exam drafts with your colleague.
  3. Don’t use “all of the above” as an answer. Students should critically think about each answer. Providing “all of the above” as a possibility could lead to them figuring out that two are right, not knowing about the other option(s), but still picking “all of the above” through strategy over comprehension.
  4. Don’t insert humor in answers. Because you want every possible answer to seem like a probable option, avoid drawing from your comedic side. Doing so will probably lead to students instantly eliminating that answer. Students should pick the right answers because they’re prepared, not because the wrong answers are clearly wrong.

Sources/additional reading

·      University of Florida Teaching Assistant Handbook — http://www.teachingcenter.ufl.edu/ta_development.html

·      How to Prepare Better Multiple-Choice Test Items, by Steven J. Burton, Richard R. Sudweeks, Paul F. Merrill and Bud Wood of Brigham Young University http://testing.byu.edu/info/handbooks/betteritems.pdf

·      Tips for developing and administering multiple-choice tests, by University of Florida master’s student Antionette Rollins – https://successfulteaching.wordpress.com/2012/12/12/tips-developing-administering-multiple-choice-tests/

University of Florida Professor Julie Dodd – jdodd (at) ufl (dot) edu

Michael Stone is master’s student in environmental journalism at the University of Florida and was a student in Mass Communication Teaching (MMC 6930). Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Stone

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