Improving Multiple Choice Questioning

I am a big fan of the multiple choice question. I’ve written multiple articles discussing how to more efficiently and effectively utilize these questions in class. Probably one of my most seen tweets centers around the use of multiple choice questions:

With this article, though, I want to describe a method to more efficiently and effectively use multiple choice questioning as a tool for self-assessment and as an assessment of learning technique. It is incredibly simple and easy to implement with students in class and is also quite useful for students to utilize in their own, individual studies. 

In fact, I’m using this method in class today as a form of retrieval practice.

Using multiple choice questioning traditionally involves providing students with a stem and, usually, 3-5 answer choices. Students choose which they choose to be correct and then move on to the next task. There’s nothing really wrong with this, but with some simple adjustments, students can be provided with the opportunity to think more deeply about the question and the possible answers. 

So, here’s how this goes:

  1. Instead of showing the question stem with all possible answers, I only show the stem. For instance:

Give the students 20 seconds or so to write down what answer they believe will be correct. For some question stems, like the one above, there may be multiple possible correct answers. If this is the case, students should write down as many possible correct answers as possible. Obviously, the more correct information they can recall at this point is a positive and indicates a quality level of understanding. This allows for the goal free effect. If they cannot come up with any possible correct answers, that should also communicate to students their level of understanding. Either their storage strength or retrieval strength isn’t strong enough. 

  1. Show the students the possible answers.

Instruct students to find the correct answer. Hopefully, it is one of the possible correct answers they wrote down. If that is the case, they can feel pretty confident in their knowledge (assuming it wasn’t a guess). If they didn’t have the correct possible answer written down prior to seeing the answer choices, but they can now identify the correct answer, that should also communicate to the students they can recognize but cannot recall the correct answer. Obviously, this is better than getting it completely wrong, but they may want to come back to this information for more review. Finally, if after revealing all of the possible answers, they still cannot successfully answer the question, this should communicate to the students that they have a poor understanding of the needed knowledge and this topic should probably be first on their list of to-be reviewed material. 

There it is. Simple and easy. You can even manipulate an index card to have the question stem written on top of the card and then fold over the bottom to cover the possible answers so students can more easily utilize this on their own. And, of course, there are several other methods to manipulate the questions and answers…like instructing students, once seeing the possible answers, to change the question stem to make the other answers correct. 

As important as this strategy is for assessing student knowledge, I believe the discussion that often accompanies it to be just as important for instructing students on how to study and what different levels of understanding ‘look like’ in action. 

For instance, simply saying something like “If you can correctly recall the answer before the possible answer choices are made available for you, you can feel quite confident in your knowledge” may seem obvious to teachers, but students rarely think about their learning in terms of levels of understanding. They don’t realize if they can recall it without any retrieval cues, they can certainly recognize the correct answer when provided options. 

Also, talking with students about the versatility of a strategy like this is important. There is no reason this cannot be used in other classes. It isn’t exclusive to middle school or high school or college learning. Proper learning is proper learning, no matter the level. Ask them, “How can you tailor this for other classes? How can you use this at home?” 

Finally, an incredibly meaningful discussion to have with students is how this method of assessment is superior to simple rereading of notes or highlighting, which tends to be somewhat intuitively used by many students. While not as easy as just rereading notes, posing questions that require students to retrieve information is much more effective and efficient for remembering. And, again, this is valuable for learning in all classes at all levels. 

So, how can you use this modification on the multiple choice question in your classroom? What would you change? How could you talk about this with your students? Let me know with a comment.

Feature image by Katerina Holmes on

7 thoughts on “Improving Multiple Choice Questioning

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  1. Brilliant post, Blake! Teachers in my retrieval practice sessions often wonder whether short answer or multiple choice retrieval practice questions are better, and the answer I initially learned from Pooja Agarwal was that ‘both are good’. Your post shows we can have the benefit of both at the same time! Thank you for this!

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