The Research Is In

5 Tips for Designing Multiple-Choice Quizzes

A researcher explains how to align your test design with the latest brain science.

December 14, 2018
Student taking a multiple choice test
Photo by Ben Mullins on Unsplash

While multiple-choice quizzes can be useful for gauging how well students understand a topic, they can interfere with learning if poorly designed, according to a review of recent research.

Andrew Butler, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University, specializes in the malleability of memory—how memories can fade or be reinforced over time. In a recent article in Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, he explains that despite the popularity of multiple-choice quizzes, they’re often not aligned to the latest scientific findings about how students process and retain information.

Butler says that when students are unsure of the right answer in a multiple-choice format, they may inadvertently learn incorrect information, a phenomenon called the negative suggestion effect. “When learning is the purpose, the fact that multiple-choice tests expose test-takers to a lot of incorrect information is worrisome, because they could potentially learn it,” he elaborates.

But a well-designed, low-stakes quiz should both provide teachers with the insights they need and reinforce what students know, boosting their performance on future tests. Students are prone to quickly forgetting a lesson, and smartly designed quizzes can help ensure that the information is more deeply encoded.

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Here are five research-backed tips for designing high-quality multiple-choice quizzes.

1. Don’t list too many answers. The more answers a student sees, the more likely they are to remember the wrong one. Students also spend more time on questions with more responses, limiting the total amount of material a test can cover. Stick to three possible answers—it’s the best balance between quality and efficiency.

2. Avoid trick questions. Riddles, brainteasers, or gimmicky questions designed to stump or deceive students aren’t “productive for learning,” Butler explains. While it may be tempting to include questions that require students to spend a few extra moments thinking about the answer, trick questions can backfire and confuse students—even those who are doing well on the rest of the test—and thus do more harm than good.

3. Use simple question formats. “All of the above,” “none of the above,” and multi-answer questions (such as “A, B, and D”) are prone to being gamed—if a student can eliminate one of the possible answers, the list of correct responses is quickly whittled down, leading to “artificially higher levels of performance,” Butler says.

4. Make tests challenging, but not too difficult. Quizzes that are too difficult can discourage future studying and make the material feel impenetrable. According to the research, a difficult test may also cause students to commit bad information to memory, since selecting the wrong answer reinforces it in the student’s mind. Attentive students should  be getting between 70 and 80 percent of the questions correct—any less and the test may be hindering their ability to learn the material.

5. Follow up with feedback. Reviewing is critical. Going over a quiz afterward not only gives the teacher insight on skills the class may be struggling with, but provides students with another chance to master the tested material. “Providing feedback after a multiple-choice test enhances its positive effects on learning and substantially reduces or eliminates its negative effects,” Butler writes.

The takeaway: Quizzes are not just assessments. When designed well, they can be effective learning tools, reinforcing a student’s comprehension of the material.