14 tips for multiple-choice test construction

by Jing “Taylor” Wen
Ph.D. student, University of Florida

Jing "Taylor" Wen

Jing “Taylor” Wen

Multiple-choice test is widely used in many undergraduate courses to evaluate students learning. Instructors like multiple-choice tests because such tests offer flexibility for assessing a diversity of content, allow for reliable assessment of scores, and are efficient in terms of time involved in grading. The key to taking advantage of these strengths, however, is constructing good multiple-choice items

On the other hand, poorly constructed items encourage guessing and fail to measure the test taker’s learning. We have to admit that not every multiple-choice test question is well constructed and effective in measuring what students have learned in class. The following are tips for instructors to create better multiple-choice test items and avoid the mistakes frequently seen in the ill-constructed tests.

7 Dos for constructing multiple-choice tests

1. Maintain high congruence between a particular item and the key objective.

  • The key objectives must be clearly defined.
  • The item-stem should clearly formulate the defined problem.
  • Students must know what the problem is without having to read the alternatives.

2. Construct each item to assess a single objective (Unidimensionality). 

  • If the item is “double-barreled,” testing two or more concepts, you won’t know which of the two the student truly understands if s/he gets the item correct.

3. State the stem in positive form (in general).

  • Highlight important words like “not”, “only”, “except” etc. if you use them at all.

4. Include as much of the item as possible in the stem.

  • Put the “main idea” of the item in the stem, not in the options.
  • Decrease reading burden and increase clarity of the stem.

5. Keep the alternatives similar in length.

  • A much longer or much shorter option can attract responses because they stand out visually.

6. Keep the alternatives homogeneous in content.

  • If the alternatives consist of a variety of statements related to the stem but unrelated to each other, the student’s task becomes unnecessarily confusing.

7. All distractors need to be plausible.

  • Distractors should be clearly and concisely stated.
  • Use your knowledge of common student misunderstanding in writing distracters.
  • It’s better to have a three-option item than a four-option one with a poor distracter.

7 Don’ts for constructing multiple-choice tests

1. Avoid the use of specific determiners.

·      Such as definitely, always, etc.

2. Avoid the alternatives “all of the above” and “none of the above” (in general).

3. Do not load down the stem with irrelevant materials.

4. Do not provide grammatical cues.

5. Avoid “linking” items (Local of independence).

  • The answer to one item should not found in or be dependent on another item. In other words, don’t have one question have content that will help the student answer another question on the test. This is something to check for near final test assembly when you are proofreading.

6. Avoid including keywords in the alternatives.

  • When a word or phrase in the stem is also found in one of the alternatives, it tips the student off that the alternative is probably the answer.

7. Avoid using verbatim phrasing from the textbook.

  • If the answer has been lifted word-for-word from the pages of the textbook, the students may recognize the phrasing and choose correctly out of familiarity rather than really understanding the concept.


Burton, S. J., Sudweeks, R. R., Merrill, P. F., & Wood, B. (1991). How to Prepare Better Multiple-Choice Test Items: Guidelines for University Faculty. Brigham Young University Testing Services and the Department of Instructional Science. Retrieved from https://testing.byu.edu/handbooks/betteritems.pdf

Osterlind, S. J. (1998). Constructing Test Items: Multiple-Choice, Constructed-Response, Performance, and Other Format (2nd Edition). Springer, New York, NY.

Svinicki, Marilla and McKeachie, Wilbert J. (2014). McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research and Theory for College and University Teachers (14th edition). Cengage Learning, Independence, KY.

Zimmaro, D. M. (2010). Writing Good Multiple-Choice Exams. Retrieved from https://ctl.utexas.edu/sites/default/files/documents/Writing-Good-Multiple-Choice-Exams-04-28-10.pdf

Jing “Taylor” Wen is a doctoral student in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida and a student in Mass Communication Teaching (MMC6930).


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