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Designing Common Core Multiple-Choice Questions

By Mary Blow on May 24, 2012
  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

It is that time of year, when we start reflecting back on what we accomplished and what we could do better, and set new goals for next year. This summer, in terms of professional development, I will focus on curriculum development, revising my Common Core learning experiences, and designing interim assessment questions that align with CCSS learning experiences and high-stakes state assessments. I do not buy state test prep books. Instead, I embed state test prep questions into learning experiences. This way, when we review for the state test, we are actually reviewing, not introducing content. In this post, I'll share my tips and tricks for designing rigorous and reliable multiple-choice and written-response questions.

When designing CCSS questions, keep the Common Core Shifts in mind:

  • Build content knowledge by increasing exposure to informational text.
  • Utilize textual evidence to answer a question or support an argument.
  • Utilize context clues to derive the meaning of Tier II or academic vocabulary.
  • Analyze text structures to better understand complex texts.

A major focus of the Common Core is the author's craft. Questioning the Author by Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown is a great book for creating questions that engage students in higher level thinking that analyzes text structure.

There are assessment shifts to consider as well. Susan Brookhart shares her perspective on these shifts in an ASCD Webinar “Common Core: Assessment Shifts,” which is archived on the ASCD website. There you can watch the video and download Brookhart’s handouts. It is helpful, as Brookhart provides examples of CCSS questions.

Designing the Stem

There are two parts to a multiple-choice question: the "stem," or question, and the answer choices, the correct answer and the "distracters." Multiple-choice questions have a reputation for being less than rigorous. However, you can design questions that require the students to engage in higher-level thinking, without “tricking” the student. In their book, Teacher-Made Assessments, Christopher Gareis and Leslie Grant offer the tips below to guide teachers in designing valid and reliable stems: 

  • Always state the questions clearly and eliminate extraneous information that distracts the students. Avoid putting part of the problem in the answer choices.
  • Provide as much information as possible in the stem without giving away the answer.
  • State the question in a positive form whenever possible. Avoid using negatives such as: “Which is NOT a reason why the character DID NOT resolve his conflicts prior to . . . ” If you have to use single negatives, bold, underline, or italicize the negative word.
  • Qualifiers (most likely, least likely, or best) should be in boldface type, underlined, or italicized, drawing the students’ attention.
  • If the stem requires the student to fill in the blank, put the blank at the end of the stem, not at the beginning. Avoid using too many blanks in a stem. Never put it at the beginning.
  • Make sure the questions stand alone. In other words, you should not be able to use information in one multiple-choice question to answer another.

Designing the Answer Choices

Sometimes the answer choices are so far fetched that immediately you can eliminate a distracter or two because it doesn’t make sense. These types of questions do not measure students’ skills or understanding. The data is unreliable. Validity is lost as students use the process of elimination, not knowledge, to figure out the answer.

  1. Use answer choices that are believable or could make sense. This ensures that student have to apply knowledge to select the correct answer.
  2. Always write the correct answer first.
  3. Always have a minimum of three answer choices, but no more than five.
  4. Vary the position of the correct answer.
  5. Keep the distracters the same length as the answer.
  6. Avoid using distracters with minute differences.
  7. If answers start with similar terms or phrases, move them to the stem.
  8. Avoid using answers that state all of the above, none of the above, or A and B. These types of answers reduce rigor because they provide clues to the answer.
  9. Organize the answers in a logical order, i.e., alphabetical, numerical, shortest to longest.
  10. Make the answers grammatically parallel with the stem. If one choice starts with a verb, they all should start with a verb. Avoid using articles (a or an) that give a clue.

Injecting Higher-Level Thinking

Photo copyright iStockphoto/Glepi

There have been times when I accurately answered multiple-choice questions, even on state assessments, without reading the passage. These types of questions lack higher-level cognitive thinking or the text-based requirements. Gareis and Grant propose "5 Principles for Writing Higher Cognitive Level Multiple Choice Items" (Teacher-Made Assessments 115):

  1. The question must align to a learning standard, the skills and content being taught. Students must apply a skill or utilize knowledge or textual evidence to be able to answer the question. You must also decide the level of cognitive engagement. Is it to recall, identify, sequence, apply, analyze, or synthesize?
  2. Introduce novelty. This means that you do not want to use the same text or questions discussed in class. Create novelty by having students apply a skill you've taught using a different text. When creating questions based on a novel, engage them in analyzing and making inferences that require them to apply the analytical skills taught in class and extend them beyond the classroom discussions.
  3. Use extended prompts — two to three sentences of contextual information. Be careful that you do not give away the answer in this additional information, however. For example, we are reading The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. I taught the literary term flashback. I would provide the excerpt where the flashback or setting shift occurred, and then base my question on that excerpt.
  4. Focus on complex, not simple, content. Simple content requires students to memorize definitions or put events in sequential order. It is much like the example above where the excerpt from The Devil’s Arithmetic is provided. Higher-level thinking would go beyond identifying the excerpt as a flashback. To be successful, students would have to synthesize this information with their understanding of the character and the definition of flashback to infer the message that the author is trying to convey to the reader by using this literary device. 
  5. Engage with stimulus material: diagrams, maps, charts, or pictures. Well-designed nonfiction text utilizes stimulus materials to enrich the text with additional information. Utilizing these features in multiple-choice questions forces students to analyze and synthesize the information from the text and the nonfiction text features to answer the question.

Formatting a Multiple-Choice Test

Always consider white space on the page. Cluttered pages will cause even the most diligent student to feel overwhelmed and possibly shut down. If you have students with tacking issues, white space will help them to be more successful. Use at least a one-inch margin. Depending on the age, I use one-and-a-half or double spacing when formatting the question and answer choices. If students struggle with handwriting or have dyslexia, put the answer choices in capital letters: A, B, C, and D. These letters are more accurately assessed than lowercase letters: a, b, c, and d.

Professional Development Resources

For more on this topic, see:

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