Multiple Choice Questions
By some measures, multiple choice questions are the most popular question type in assessment.They show up everywhere, across disciplines, across ages, in traditional education, in the business world, in certification exams and seemingly everywhere you look. Multiple choice questions aren’t popular with everyone, though. Students typically have a less positive view of them, and they’re subject to criticism from educators, instructional designers and other avenues.
Given this gap in perceptions, it’s worth exploring the benefits and drawbacks of this question type. Let’s start with the advantages:
Multiple choice questions can be used to test everything from simple recognition (e.g. “Which of the following is a mammal?”) to high-level critical thinking skills (e.g. “Which of the following, if true, would most weaken the argument above?”). Any time a choice between alternatives could tell you something about the examinee, multiple choice questions have a potential role.
While many multiple choice questions are simple tests of memory only, they can be used for more sophisticated tasks. For example, they can be used to:
- compare different people, theories, or eras (e.g. “Locke and Rousseau would most likely hold different opinions about which one of the following statements?”)
- apply ideas to new circumstances (e.g. “How would a Keynesian economist respond to the claim that increases in government spending merely increase the price level?)
- predict consequences (e.g. “If an increase in the price of gasoline increased the cost of producing air conditioners by $5 per unit, which of the following events would be most likely to occur, assuming perfect competition?”)
- evaluate courses of action (e.g. “Which one of the following is the most appropriate evaluation of the above recommendation?”)
- analyze data (“Which of the following conclusions can be most reasonably drawn from the above chart/graph/data?”)
Ease of use
The structure of test items should be as clear as possible. Otherwise, a test may measure mastery of the test format instead of any underlying skills. Multiple choice questions measure up well in this regard. Most will be very familiar with multiple choice questions, so the format of this item type will be confusing to very few.
Examinees make two decisions
The choices in multiple choice questions are not considered in a vacuum. They are always compared against each other. So, when examinees answer multiple choice questions, they are in essence making two separate decisions. They endorse the choice they picked, and they also reject the choices they did not pick. This dynamic improves the discriminatory power of multiple choice questions, since the examinee that answers correctly has made two good decisions, and the examinee that answers incorrectly has made two bad decisions. As a result, multiple choice
questions can be better predictors of ability than item types that ask users to consider statements individually.
Writing multiple choice questions can be very cost-efficient. For this reason, multiple choice questions are often good candidates when you need to administer a large number of test items, or when security considerations force you to create many versions of the same test.
Multiple choice questions can be graded automatically, which saves time, and they can be answered quickly, which makes it possible to ask many such questions without taking up too much testing time. So even though a single multiple choice question does not provide enough evidence to draw a solid conclusion about the examinee, the format of the question allows you to ask a battery of questions which, taken together, can provide enough information to you to draw solid conclusions.
The above list should help explain why test makers tend to use multiple choice questions. Still, these questions have real limitations that must be considered when designing assessments. Here are the major ones:
The most important limitation of multiple choice questions comes from its essential format: the user selects the one choice that best answers the question. The correct answer is always right in front of the examinee; the examinee merely has to recognize it while rejecting distracters. The examinees never have to concoct a correct answer; they merely have to spot one. For this reason, multiple choice questions are hard-pressed to assess creative thinking, the ability to come up with something novel, or complex performances. We feel more confident in a multiple choice test that measures quantitative ability than we would about a multiple choice test that measured cooking skill or innovative thinking.
Two paths to the correct answer
To answer a multiple choice, question, examinees can recognize the correct answer, but it is often just as effective for them to eliminate the incorrect choices. For this reason, multiple choice questions must be written carefully so that the distracters do not “give the question away.”
Limits to flexibility
The flexibility of multiple choice questions has limits. Although versatile, such questions are hard-pressed to capture all the context that goes into making real-world decisions. A multiple choice question has exactly one correct answer, but real-world problems often have many solutions, and issues can be grey instead of just black and white.
If a multiple choice question has four choices, then a random guess will yield the correct answer 25% of the time. A 25% margin of error is high, and that’s why the same skill must be tested multiple times before we can be reasonably confident that the learner has accomplished the learning objectives measured by the question.
Of course, there’s much more that goes into writing solid multiple choice questions, but we hope this introduction explains why they are used so often and why careful thought in assessment design is so important.