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5.4 MCQs: mistakes to avoid

Described image
Figure 7 Do your multiple-choice questions signpost the right answer?

No matter how MCQs are used, it is important to avoid common mistakes when writing questions:

  • Grammatical clues: If the verb in the question implies the correct answer will be plural, then the distractors should also be plural. If the use of ‘an’ implies the correct answer begins with a vowel, then the distractors should also begin with vowels.
  • Response length: If the correct answer is long and detailed, distractors should also be long and detailed.
  • Final distractor is obviously wrong: It can be difficult to come up with plausible distractors, with the result that the last one is clearly not correct.
  • Clear pattern to correct answers: Learners will be looking for patterns in the arrangement of distractors. Test setters often avoid putting the correct answer early on, meaning (c) and (d) are more likely to be correct.
  • Using the correct terms more often: If a term appears in multiple answers, learners will assume that the answers without it are likely to be distractors.
  • Two distractors are synonymous: If one of them is correct, the other will also be correct, which means they are definitely distractors if learners know there’s only one correct answer.
  • Off-topic options: One of the distractors is clearly from outside the subject area, which means learners can eliminate it as an option.
  • Verbal association: One or more words in the stem is picked up in one of the answers, suggesting that the two are closely related and that answer is likely to be correct.
  • Negative wording: Learners may miss the negative word and give the wrong answer because they have misread the question rather than because they do not know the correct answer. If you do include negative wording, you can make this clearer for respondents by using capital letters or underlining.
  • Trick questions: Questions that are designed to catch learners out reveal little about their understanding of the subject, and may leave them feeling cheated of the opportunity to gain full marks.
  • Random success: If each question has four options and one correct answer, a learner who always gives the same answer in response (all (b)s, for example) is likely to score around 25%. Make this random success less likely by requiring learners to identify two or more correct answers to some questions.