Two Easy Strategies to Improve Multiple Choice Questions

I recently had a meeting with a high school student concerned with their study habits (wow!). The student wanted to know if there were better ways he could study with multiple choice questions he created in quizlet. I gave him two super easily adaptable strategies that are applicable across all subjects. To be honest, I thought they were pretty obvious (curse of knowledge), but they are not to many students. I hope you and/or your students can apply these strategies in class to enhance learning and improve studying.

Almost exclusively, students learn to see multiple choice questions as an exercise of finding the correct answer while ruling out, or even ignoring, all other options. I’m not sure there’s really anything wrong with that usage, but I believe there are much more advantageous ways to utilize these types of questions. The strategies below are so simple to adapt to traditional multiple choice questions and greatly improve upon how students think about the question and options provided. Cognitively speaking, they require students employ more effortful thinking. And, generally speaking, more effortful consideration of information can lead to better application of subject material.

So, let’s take a look at the following multiple choice question:

This question comes from the released 2012 AP Psychology exam.

As stated above, with the proper knowledge, a student can easily identify the answer as (D) medulla and move on to the next question. And, during an assessment for a grade, that is certainly what should be done. However, when viewing the question as an assessment of/for learning (or, perhaps when studying for a quiz/test), it should be approached differently. Instead of being seen as a mission in finding a correct answer and moving on, this question can be broken down, accommodated/modified, and utilized in a far greater capacity. While the following strategies may seem obvious and/or simplistic in their application, this certainly should not be equated with its usefulness or effectiveness. Especially with learning, the more minimalistic a strategy is, the greater the chance students can consciously focus more on the material to be learned and less on the application of the strategy itself, oftentimes resulting in a heightened chance the material to be remembered.

So, here are the two strategies. Simple. Easy. Effective. Efficient.

  1. Change the stem.

Task students with using the 4 distractors from the multiple choice question and write a stem that makes those distractors the correct answer. For example, from the question above, students could change the stem to ‘The area of the brain that is responsible for controlling circadian rhythm is the (A) suprachiasmatic nucleus.” The same could then be done with distractor (B), (C), and (E).

Challenge students to do this using only their brain before consulting their notebook/textbook or peers. Now, instead of being a question that may only require students to traditionally only recognize one fact to find the answer, students are asked to recall five different aspects of brain structures and functions; greatly improving the usefulness and efficiency of the question.

2. Hide the answers.

Super simple: After reading the question, don’t read the answers. Students may be disciplined enough to simply not read on to the answer choices or, perhaps, students can cover the answer choices with a piece of paper or their hand. So, in the question above, students will read “The area of the brain stem that is important in controlling breathing is the _____________.” Essentially, what has changed is that students are no longer tasked with recognizing the answer among distractors (like with a traditional multiple choice question) and are instead asked to recall the answer with no additional cues. While there is some question as to which task is more cognitively challenging, generally speaking, if a student can recall the answer, they will also be able to recognize it. So, if they can fill-in-the-blank with the stem of the multiple choice question alone, they should be able to also choose the correct answer among distractors.

So, why utilize these strategies for studying and assessing knowledge?

  1. To put it simply, these strategies require more cognition from students than traditional multiple choice questions pose. More effortful thinking with and about the material can certainly lead to more retention of the information for future application.
  2. Notice these strategies are not subject specific. They can be easily applied across any disciplines that ask questions in the multiple choice format. While this may seem obvious to teachers, I believe students compartmentalize many strategies used within a class and believe they are only to be utilized within that class. So, it is quite important to point out the adaptability of these strategies in their other classes. I know, as a student, I would rather become familiar with learning strategies that are more sweeping in their applicability than methods that are super specific to a particular class or discipline (when possible).
  3. These strategies are fantastic for highlighting unknown and known material for the student. This should be a major goal of studying. If I can confidently answer a question correctly (not guessing), I should feel pretty good in my knowledge of that information. If I cannot answer a question correctly (or if I guessed), I should not feel confident in my ability to retrieve this material on an assessment and this particular subject matter should be placed in a ‘to be studied’ pile.

What other strategies do you utilize with multiple choice questions?

How do you make learning visible for your students?

How do you highlight deficiencies in their learning?


Photo by Wadi Lissa on Unsplash

4 thoughts on “Two Easy Strategies to Improve Multiple Choice Questions

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  1. From the teacher’s side: For questions that lend themselves to this, I give mine the answer but not the reasoning. That is answers A-D are the same correct answer with different justifications of why that answer is correct. This helps a lot of them recognize how surface level their understandings are. For a higher cognitive tax there can be a right and wrong answer, each repeated twice but with different justifications. That said, those with good memories have sometimes memorized reasons. Aargh! And thus, the open ended/takes forever to grade, open ended Explain why…

  2. I use them to get students to find the best answer. In English, they have to make a value judgement, and I often use a distractor which is long and full of jargon but of lower value than an insightful shorter response.

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