Challenges in Writing Challenging Multiple-Choice Questions

Written By aperkins

On December 15, 2009

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End of semester exams have been given. You are either gaining a new set of students in January or you are carrying over former students to the second leg of the academic year. Either way, it’s time to begin writing the summative assessment you’ll be giving in May.

Why so soon? The summative assessment is what guides the daily formative assessments. You must first identify what your students will be able to independently accomplish at the end of your course. Your daily lesson plans should include strategies and activities that support your standards-based summative assessment. When you closely examine your state and national standards, give attention to the skills the standards are requiring of students. For example, verbs like analyze, infer, evaluate, apply, paraphrase, interpret are the skills you have taught your students. These skills should be transferrable to untried analogies, case studies, incomplete scenarios, premise-consequence circumstances, and problem/solution evaluations.

However, what often happens is that test questions appear on the exams that students have been interacting with throughout the unit or the semester. Here’s an example. A 10th grade Language Arts teacher has her class reading Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.  Students have dissected this piece of literature through writing, reading, speaking, and listening opportunities. When the student goes to take the summative exam, test questions appear on the exam like “Of Mice and Men is an example of a a. novel b. novella c. short story d. biography.” What skill(s) is this question measuring? No skill other than being able to recall memorized information. So how do you measure that students have mastered your content skills?                          

Your test questions should use new language to present familiar concepts in order to prevent rote memorization. Avoid recall questions where students are asked to recall information, facts, theories, terms, methods, concepts, principles, like in the above example. Instead, write questions where students are asked to apply the appropriate information they have learned in your class. This moves questioning up Bloom’s Taxonomy of Cognitive Levels. Give students a passage they are unfamiliar with and ask questions like, “The main purpose of the passage is to…” This is having students recognize the author’s indirectly stated purpose.

 Writing quality questions takes time therefore it’s important you begin the process now. As you are searching for example questions to guide your writing, use released items as a starting point. Search within departments of education, ACT, SAT, and AP websites to find content specific released items. We want to prepare students for what real-life testing situations ask them to do and these all provide authentic test questions to provide authentic practice.