Concepts in Course Design

Creating Multiple Choice

Need a little help structuring your multiple choice questions?

Multiple choice questions can be a great addition to any test. Besides the obvious advantages of being easily marked and not having to read students handwriting, multiple choice questions have the advantage of being a quantitative grade. Unlike essays, which are heavily subjective to mark, multiple choice have an unquestionable right answer. So, here are a few quick tips to help you structure your multiple choice.

  • Ensure that you are testing materials that students were required to know.i
  • Make sure that this material is important to your course goals. Most courses cover a lot of information. Test the things that you want the students to take away with them from the course.ii
  • Use a variety of different types of multiple choice questions. Some straight fact based, some involving calculation, some involving choosing the correct justification for a statement or fact, etc. Ensure enough variety to keep students thinking on a number of different levels.iii
  • Some teachers choose to penalize wrong answers on multiple choice to eliminate the element of guesswork from the exam. However, this can result in students with negative marks, and often discourages students from answering questions that they’re not 100% sure of. Also, it’s just mean.iv
  • Ensure the question is clearly stated with no ambiguity.v Make sure the question and the answers make grammatical sense when put
  • If you choose to use negative wording in a question (ie. Which is not correct?) underline or bold the negative in the question.vii
  • Avoid using double negatives.viii
  • Ensure that the letter corresponding to the correct answer varies throughout the test. It’s not good when students can predict the letter pattern.ix
  • Ensure that you are detailed enough with your questions. (ie. How many fingers does a hand have? The answer could be 4, excluding the thumb, or 5, including it).x
  • Use “all of the above” and “none of the above” both sparingly and carefully.xi Avoid using narrow and broad answers in the same question. This will simply make the student immediately discard the most extreme option. (ie. √(3+1)= a.0.0005 b.4 c.3 d.2)xii
  • Make sure the correct answer is clearly the best. Especially in opinion questions, or questions that draw on multiple influencing factors, it can be difficult for students, and even other colleagues, to determine which answer is most right.xiii

If you are interested in learning more about how to structure your multiple choice exams, contact The Centre for Teaching and Learning at

Sample Multiple Choice Questions

1. The following is an example of a bad multiple choice question, and the reasons why it is so, from Roy Bishop’s article in The Teaching of Astronomy.

Q: Space debris is of most interest to astronomers for which one of the following reasons?

  • A. It contains much gold and silver.
  • B. It all came from the Moon.
  • C. It all came from comets.
  • D. It tells us about the early Solar System. E. It tells us about the last ice age on Earth.

Comment: The question itself is not good because the term “space debris” is not deifned (fragments of satellites in near-Earth orbit? Interplanetary dust and meteoroids?) Also, answers A, B, and E should be obviously incorrect to even a relatively poor student, so a guess at the remaining answers would mean a 50% chance at choosing the correct answer.

2. The following is an example of a good multiple choice question, and the reasons why it is so, from Roy Bishop’s article in The Teaching of Astronomy.

Q: Suppose you are in Williamstown. If, towards the northwest, you see a first quarter Moon near the horizon, what month is it?

  • A. August
  • B. March
  • C. December
  • D. June
  • E. September

Comment: This question is not trivial, and it does not involve regurgitation of standard material. The student must know about: i) the phases of the moon and the associated Sun-Earth-Moon geometry; ii) the inclination of the ecliptic; iii) that the Moon’s orbit lies (approximately) near the ecliptic; iv) the possible range of compass directions of the intersection of the ecliptic with the horizon at mid-northern latitudes; and v) how the Sun’s position to the ecliptic is related to the time of year. Furthermore, the student must be able to correlate these various things and fir them to the question. In brief: A low Moon in the northwest means that the summer solstice point (most northerly point) of the ecliptic must be in that vicinity. The first quarter phase means that the sun must be about 90 degrees further westward along the ecliptic...near the spring equinox. Therefore, the answer is B.


  1. Bishop, R. L. (1990). Multiple Choice Questions. The Teaching Of Astronomy. 83-87
  2. Jones, A. (1997) Setting Objective Tests. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 21(1), 106-114.
  3. Renner, P. (1993) Designing Tests and Quizzes. In The Art of Teaching Adults: How to Become an Exceptional Instructor and Facilitator. 108-113. Vancouver: Training Associates.
iRenner, 1993, pg 110.
iiRenner, 1993, pg 110.
iiiJones, 1997, pg 111.
ivBishop, 1990, pg 83.
vRenner, 1993, pg 110.
viRenner, 1993, pg 110
viiRenner, 1993, pg 110.
viiiRenner, 1993, pg 111.
ixJones, 1997, pg 111.
xJones, 1997, pg 110.
xiRenner, 1993, pg 110.
xiiJones, 1997, pg 109.
xiiiRenner, 1993, pg 110.

-Rebecca Schaeffer, June 2011