Multiple-Choice Questions

(Summarized from a presentation by James Parker, psychometrician)

Click here for a printable pdf version.

While multiple-choice questions are not always the most authentic assessment of students’ learning, sometimes they are necessary. But how do you write a good (in psychometrician terms, defensible) multiple-choice question?

Each question must include

  • A stem (statement or question to which learners respond);
  • Four options
    • 1 key (best or most appropriate of available options)
    • 3 distractors (plausible yet incorrect options to the stem);
  • A single, specific issue (as concretely as possible).

Stem Advice:

  • minimize the amount of reading in each item (aim for grade 10 reading level);
  • avoid vague frequency terms (e.g. always, never, often, usually);
  • include the central idea of the question in the stem instead of the choices;
  • ensure the directions in the stem are very clear;
  • word the stem positively (i.e. avoid negatives such as NOT or EXCEPT, but capitalize if used);
  • do not use “which of the following…”;
  • use “which” before a noun and “what” before a verb;
  • don’t write more than one sentence.

Options Advice:

  • vary the location of the correct answer;
  • ensure distractors and key all follow grammatically from the stem, and are homogeneous in content and grammatical structure;
  • ensure all options are of the same length (count the numbers of words!);
  • place options in logical (e.g. alphabetical or numerical) order;
  • avoid “none of the above” and “all of the above”;
  • make all distractors plausible;
  • phrase choices positively (avoid negatives, such as NOT);
  • avoid clues to the right answer, such as
    • always, never, completely, and absolutely;
    • options that are identical or similar to words in the stem;
    • grammatical inconsistencies that clue test-taker to the correct option;
    • a conspicuously correct option;
    • pairs or triplets of options that clue test-taker to the correct option;
    • blatantly absurd, ridiculous options.


  • spell out all acronyms;
  • use “client with diagnosis of” instead of reference to disability, disease, ethnicity, etc.;
  • avoid elitism (vocabulary related to socioeconomic status).