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Multiple Choice Questions: Benefits, Debates, and Best Practices

image of hand checking a multiple choice box. There are six choices: multiple choices, multiple controversies, multiple benefits, multiple best practices, multiple bloom's levels and multiple development methods. Hand is checking

Who knew that a question type could be so shrouded in controversy? The multiple choice question (MCQ) may be a “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” favorite, but it’s also the most widely debated question type when it comes to efficacy and outcomes reporting. Why all the buzz? The multiple choice question is forever associated with standardized tests, Scantron sheets, #2 pencils, and all of the above. But like any question type, there are benefits and downfalls, there's a time and place, and there are a slew of best practices. Let’s weigh the pros and cons and figure out when to best use this traditional testing favorite.

The Multiple-Benefit Question Type

Like any question type, the format alone is useless without proper usage, wording, and subject pairing to make it effective. The following benefits make multiple choice an attractive option for fact-based content.

  • Easy on the Grader Think about the instructor with no TA and 500 students in their 101 course. Essays and short answer questions, while effective, will inevitably delay grading. Auto-graded multiple-choice questions allow instructors to test their students quickly and efficiently, without hiring additional graders.
  • Time and Scope: There’s a reason why MCQs are a default for most standardized testing. By nature, MCQs allow for fast testing across a vast expanse of content. According to Vanderbilt University, “because students can typically answer a multiple choice item much more quickly than an essay question, tests based on multiple choice items can typically focus on a relatively broad representation of course material, thus increasing the validity of the assessment.
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  • Flexibility Perhaps it isn’t the nature of the question but what we are asking that allows us to think of this question type as so rigid. There are options to expand to different Bloom’s Taxonomy levels in am MCQ. While many default to questions that test both understanding and remembering facts, a well-worded question can test on application and analysis.
  • Single/Multiple Answers A single answer allows for simple weeding out of incorrect answers. However, with multiple correct answers (and this doesn’t mean “D. All of the above”) present, you can eliminate the process of elimination.
  • Measurable and Reliable With the focus on efficacy measurement in schools increasing, being able to have large amounts of objective testing data that show students' grasp and retention of content is pivotal for an institution.

The Multiple Layers of Controversy

All benefits aside, MCQs are widely debated for their efficacy and often considered a poor question type to gauge a student’s level of critical thinking, making them far better suited for lower-level Bloom's questioning. The following are some of the pitfalls mentioned by leading MCQ opponents.

  • Development Time For the question author, a well-crafted MCQ isn’t always just about writing the best correct answer, it’s creating deeply convincing false answers, or distractors. This takes more time than a simple fill-in-the-blank or essay question. Too many sloppy questions have been written in the past that give the correct answer away or that give a freebie distractor away as a definitely wrong answer.
  • Working Backwards from WrongAccording to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, “Multiple choice items can be easier than open-ended questions asking the same thing. This is because it is harder to recall an answer than to recognize it. Test-wise students know that it is sometimes easier to work backwards from the answer options, looking for the one that best fits. It also is possible to choose the 'right' answer for the wrong reason.”
  • Beating the Odds You may have heard these question types called “multiple guess questions.” Of course, guessing is present in any question, though MCQs allow for even the most clueless learner to have a 25% chance. If they can remove even one distractor, their odds have immediately increased to 33%. The option for guessing is present in plenty of question types… but here, the right answer is literally on the page. May the odds be ever NOT in their favor.
  • Diversify Your Question Types With the majority of standardized tests heavily reliant on multiple-choice, deliberate choices must be made as to when to use MCQs and MCQs should be interspersed with other question types that assess students on their abilities to create, evaluate, and formulate their own responses to situational questions.

Your Lifelines: Best Practices for MCQ Authoring

Pros and cons aside, the MCQ is still a formidable option for testing. When used in moderation, with a diverse cast of other question types, and well-crafted for optimal learning, MCQs can remain steadfast against the tide of push-back. To better assist you, the content developer, with your multiple-choice assessment authoring, keep the following in mind:

  • Move Beyond the “Above”“All of the above” and “None of the above” have a negative effect on your testing. While one allows students to gain credit when they recognize at least two correct choices, the other rewards them for not formalizing what the correct answer is at all. Too often, questions are authored with the traditional “above” distractor. However, with digital randomization features, what is above may actually be below.
  • The Power of Distractors A well developed MCQ not only tests students on correct answers, it puts to rest commonly chosen incorrect answers by adding them in as distractors. Choose your distractor options carefully. Be consistent in your options, make them each plausible and relevant to the subject matter being tested. A key term from two chapters ago is a dead giveaway. Like matching questions, you want to keep your options homogenous with an objective list format such as numerical or alphabetical.
  • Randomize Multiple-choice questions have grown a lot smarter. Choose an assessment building tool, such as GT'sMyEcontentFactory, that allows for randomization of distractors. Not only does randomization act as a built-in cheating prevention tool, it also keeps your choice organization objective. No learner will be cracking that code.
  • Move beyond textWe often think in text, but, according to eLearningIndustry.com, a great way to test on higher levels of analysis includes adding a chart, graph or image to a multiple-choice question.
  • What to Avoid
    • absolutes like always and never
    • long-winded distractors
    • multiple-multiple choices, such as "C. Choices A and B"
    • incomplete questions that just seem to ________
    • negatives, such as "all of the following are... except" and "which of the following are NOT..."

For more best practices and examples of great MCQs at various levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, be sure to visit the following links:


Crafting great assessments isn't always easy, but beginning with the right authoring tool from the start can help the content developer, instructors who rely on assessments to accurately measure outcomes, and the students themselves. 

Did you know that you can make multiple choice questions in GT's MyEcontentFactory? This is just one of many assessment types that our assessment tool facilitates. Try it today - contact us for a demo.

Which side of the MCQ aisle are you? Let us know in the comments section below!

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