Reverse Engineering the Multiple-Choice Question

Because I teach a class (AP Psychology) that relies heavily on my students’ ability to strategically read and understand multiple-choice questions, I find myself frequently pondering different ways to have my students interact with those questions. I have written quite extensively in the past on the topic: a smorgasbord of articles on multiple choice questions. These posts cover topics from what the research says on writing effective questions to methods for interacting with all answer choices and increasing cognition. Really…good stuff, if I do say so myself.

So, why not add one more iteration to the catalogue of multiple choice questioning/answering?

The typical multiple choice questions provides one stem and three to five responses. The learner is tasked with recognizing the correct response among the distractors. Simple. Easy. Good.

But what if students were provided the responses and were tasked with constructing the stem? For example, during my unit on psychological disorders, what if my students were provided this:


Construct a question or scenario where one of the following responses is correct and the distractors are incorrect.

A. schizophrenia

B. bipolar disorder

C. generalized anxiety disorder

D. obsessive-compulsive disorder

E. major depressive disorder


Again, quite simple and fairly easy to assign as a teacher. I see a lot of positives with having students reverse engineer multiple choice questions:

  1. It helps them to better understand how they are constructed when they are answering.
  2. It ensures students understand the material. It would be quite difficult for me to write a question about specific symptoms of, say, schizophrenia if I don’t know symptoms of schizophrenia that do not apply to any of the other disorders listed.
  3. In order to correctly complete, students are required to not only understand one of the responses, but all of them to be able to compare and contrast characteristics.

And there are many options for taking this and growing it in class to something really special:

  1. Students could be given one set of responses and tasked with writing a separate question or scenario where each response is correct. So, in the example above, the students wouldn’t just write one question or scenario for A-E, but they would construct 1 stem where A is correct, 1 stem where B is correct, etc…5 in total. Again, that’s a lot of comparing and contrasting and considering a lot of information to successfully complete the task. This particular use would be particularly advantageous with commonly confusing information or contradictory material.
  2. Students could be given smaller sheets of paper with one set of responses and students construct one stem. Then the classes questions could be gathered and shuffled, and a class discussion could occur looking at the different multiple choice questions that were created. This is especially interesting to me, because there are several ways students could consider the example above. Students may choose to write stems focusing on the symptoms of the disorders, the prevalence of the disorders, the genetic components, the environmental components, or general statistics about the different disorders. Having students consider others’ questions could perhaps open their minds to differing points of views or facets of concepts.
  3. Someone inadvertently gave me this idea last week (and I’m not sure who it was…if it was you, PLEASE let me know so I can give you credit) – Tell students that the better questions created may become assessment questions in class. Students may be motivated to give more effort in question construction and/or any activity where the questions are used.

At the end of the day, however you use the task of reverse engineering the multiple choice question, students are thinking and applying the knowledge they have in their brain; retrieving a lot of information and using it to demonstrate their level of understanding to themselves and the teacher. A great way to end this activity would definitely be to have students consider what information was particularly tricky for them to either remember or write a stem about. This may indicate a hole in their knowledge that needs to be addressed. While this may not have looked like a traditional assessment of their knowledge, it definitely was. Let them know this and encourage students to use assessments requiring the retrieval of information for studying instead of less effective methods that utilize a lower level of cognition (rereading and highlighting, for example).


Edit: November 22, 2021 – 11:35 am

I received a very nice email from Mrs. Liza Kuhn this morning. She is an AP Psychology teacher in Pennsylvania. Below is an image of how she has adapted reverse engineering of the multiple choice question for her class:

So, this is to help students review information from multiple units in psychology. A few aspects of this really stand out to me:

  1. No definitions allowed. Students, in order to write the stem, have to incorporate information beyond simple term to definition (Upon using this with her classes, Mrs. Kuhn said her students commented about how hard it is to write quality multiple-choice questions).
  2. It provides students with many options for terms/concepts to incorporate into the created questions. If you did this with an entire class and selected their written questions, there’s a great possibility you would have mostly all different multiple-choice questions. I would maybe add to have students highlight five terms they are not familiar with and incorporate those five terms into the questions they create…just to make them stretch their knowledge and get them out of the comfort zone of material they are certain they already know.
  3. It puts most of the onus on the students. Mrs. Kuhn’s adaptation requires much less time from the teacher to create. The student is doing most of the thinking and most of the work. For the most part, the person in class doing the thinking/applying is the person doing the learning.

How might you use/adapt reverse engineering of multiple choice questions in your classroom?


Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

4 thoughts on “Reverse Engineering the Multiple-Choice Question

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  1. I’ve appreciated this website for insightful suggestions that are based on the learning sciences.The National Board of Medical Examiners have extensively studied objectively scored assessment methods. Go to their website and download their free guide to writing these question types. In addition assessment in medical education has been studied extensively. LIke instruction, assessment should incorporate evidence-based strategies for developing methods aligned with your desired outcomes! Have fun!

  2. Great strategy that encourages learners to truly engage with the reading text! I’m working with second language learners who are preparing for an academic English exam. I’ve been experimenting with providing the answer to an open question for learners to create an appropriate question paraphrasing language from the text. This helps to raise awareness of how paraphrasing is often key to passing the exam and helps them to develop their language. Tempted to have a play with your ideas soon and see if those work In my context!

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