We provide some pointers to write MCQs to test students’ reasoning, rather than just recall.
We recommended that you find alternative ways to assess knowledge by designing questions that test students’ reasoning through short answer or essay questions. This also drives students to engage more deeply with their learning. Keep in mind that students will need more time to complete such assessment tasks where the difficulty level is higher.
See examples on redesigning your questions as open book format.
In circumstances where multi-choice questions for assessment is unavoidable, we recommend that you ensure the MCQs are written to test students’ reasoning, rather than just recall, as explained below. We also recommend you use question banks in Canvas or Inspera to mitigate the possibility of academic dishonesty in a non-invigilated setting.
A tried-and-tested approach
Step 1: Topic
Identify a topic
Start with one that aligns with an intended learning outcome (ILO). For example:
LO18.4 Explain the effects that different cultivation methods have on the number and weight of tomatoes grown.
Step 2: True statements
Identify some true statements related to the topic
- The growing season for tomatoes is proportional to the length of time daytime temperatures remain above 20°C.
- The weight of the tomatoes is proportional to the amount of water provided.
- The yield will increase with longer exposure to sunlight.
Step 3: True options
From these statements, create true options.
For the first statement above
- A true option could be “Increasing the duration of the growing season would increase the number of tomatoes produced.”
Step 4: False options
From these statements, create false options
For the first statement above
- A false option could be that “Increasing the duration of the growing season would decrease the number of tomatoes produced.”
Step 5: Write a stem
Write a stem based on the topic
From the learning outcome, the topic we are trying to test here relates to improving crop yields and the cultivation methods that may help.
A possible stem might be
- “The health and yield of a tomato plant are determined by factors affecting the germination and growth of seedlings and the length of the growing season. Which of the following statements regarding cultivation methods is correct?”
Step 6: Assemble
Assemble the different combinations
If you wrote, for example, three statements in step 2 and then followed this up with one true and one false option for each of the three statements, you should now have six options to use.
For a multiple-choice question with four options, you can create a number of varieties just by swapping options in and out.
Adapted from The University of Sydney, How2MCQ – Tips for efficiently writing meaningful automarkable questions by Danny Liu.
- Align the question to intended learning outcomes.
- Create pools of questions, add them to appropriate Canvas or Inspera question banks, and use these to populate quizzes.*
- Leverage common misconceptions to help gauge understanding and guide learning.
- Add rich media where appropriate. Use the Canvas Rich Content Editor to add images, videos, links, etc., creating more authentic scenarios in questions and options.
- Avoid double negatives.
- Use simple language to ensure you are testing for conceptual understanding, not English comprehension.
- Avoid ‘all of the above’ and ‘none of the above’ (especially if you randomise the order of possible answers).
- Remove all clues that will help students answer the MCQ question correctly. For example, avoid creating a correct answer with long descriptions. If one option is much longer than the others, students may try to guess the answer by process of elimination. Sometimes more words are needed to give complete information, so selecting the longest option may result in choosing the correct answer as it contains broader ideas and a range of possibilities.
* Selecting random questions from question banks can also reduce cheating as students have less opportunity to share the answers. To provide equity, ensure the questions are of equivalent difficulty, e.g., mathematical equations with different variables/values.
Short answer and essay questions
Design written answer questions that test higher cognitive skills.
Page updated 27/03/2023 (minor edit)