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Writing Good Multiple Choice Questions

At least one time each year a Certification Question Writing Summit is held to update questions for each assessment.  This is done to ensure that all questions are up-to-date as far as any new laws or policies, to delete questions, and to write additional questions for the bank of certification questions.

In order to be an approved question, questions must be written in a certain way.  Here are a few tips to help you write better multiple choice questions:

  1. The question should be meaningful by itself and should present a definite problem.
  2. The question itself should have as much of the information as possible and should be free of irrelevant material.
  3. Use a negatively stated question only when significant learning outcomes require it. If it must be used highlight the negative aspect.
  4. All of the responses should be grammatically consistent with the stem of the question.
  5. A question should contain only one correct or clearly best answer.
  6. All distracters should be plausible. Some hints for plausibility:
    1. Use common errors as plausible distracters
    2. Use important sounding words – (significant, accurate) that are relevant to the question stem
    3. Use words that have verbal associations with the question (politician – political)
    4. Use textbook language or seem to be quoting (“the appearance of truth”)
    5. Use answers that result from common misunderstandings or carelessness
    6. Use distracters that are homogeneous and similar in content (all states, all politicians, all numbers in the same range, all sentences concerning the same topic)
    7. Use distracters that are parallel in form and grammatically consistent with the question
    8. Make distracters similar to the correct answer in length, vocabulary, sentence structure, and complexity of thought
    9. Avoid trick distracters
    10. Avoid negatives like not, etc. so that the sentence structure becomes so complex that it hides the correct answer
  1. Verbal associations between the question and the correct answer should be avoided. Verbal associations between some responses should not indicate that they are more likely than unrelated responses.
  2. The relative length of the alternatives should not provide a clue to the answer.
  3. Correct answers should appear in each alternative position approximately an equal number of times but in a random order. List responses in a way that makes sense (ascending or descending numbers, north to south, oldest to youngest) when there is a reason to do so. If all else fails, simply alphabetize your responses. This should lead to a random number of correct answers in each position.
  4. Avoid qualifying words like “usually,” “mostly,” etc. in responses because the qualification almost always indicates that an answer is correct. Avoid definitive words like “always,” “never,” and “all,” in responses because these words almost always indicate that an answer is false. Instead put these types of words in the question.
  5. Use very sparingly special alternatives such as “none of the above” or “all of the above”.