Writing Better Multiple Choice: Pitfalls and Solutions


The multiple choice question, also known as the selected response or forced choice is an important element of any teacher’s assessment toolbox.

Quality assessment hinges on appropriate question format, often which includes the multiple choice question.

Multiple Choice Question Anatomy

In most forced choice questions, there will be a question, several options (typically 4) one of which will be the correct, undisputed right answer.

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The other “wrong answers” we call distractors.  Don’t underestimate the power of the wrong answer choices when developing valid questions.

Multiple Choice Pitfalls to Avoid:

  1.  Wordy Distractors:  These choices test students’ reading ability rather than their mastery or understanding of objectives.
  2. Overlapping Options:  Often considered “trick questions” which lack validity.  Choices should be mutually exclusive.
  3. Heterogenous Structure:  Mixed length, style, etc. can provide clues about the right answers.  Write your distractors with the same tense, sentence type, length, etc.


Possible Distractor Types:

The “Obvious” Distractor:

Some assessment experts recommend a single choice which can generally be easily eliminated by most students. This will help students reduce the focus from 4 choices to 3.  However, BE CAREFUL because the obvious often becomes a “throw away” answer which can potentially be too easy for students.

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Most students will be able to eliminate “c” as it is not a large land animal.

The Unsupported Statement

This statement could possibly be true but is not supported by the text, evidence or data provided.  Often this answer choice sounds “smart” and includes big words.  It appeals to reader’s biases. It may appear to be true…or potentially be true, but it is not supported by evidence provided.

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The story explains that the comics used to be called the “funnies.”  Charlie Brown was often sad and sometimes even bad things happen to him.  “A” is unsupported as the article does not speak about the dog or its human qualities.  There may not have been other comic strips at that time with a dog like Snoopy, but we don’t know that from the article.

The Distortion of Truth

This choice represents a conclusion that distorts what is provided in the text, evidence or data.  It is not supported by the passage or data provided.  It might even disagree with the meaning of the text, evidence or data or include a conclusion beyond what the provided information supports.  It might take words or phrases out of context.

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Choice “c” is a distortion of the truth.  This article does say that Charles Schulz had comics that were rejected by the newspapers.  So, it is partly a true statement.  However, it is likely not what makes him different that other comic strips as those authors may have been rejected as well.

The Extremist

These choices contain exaggerations of the truth and use extreme words like “everyone” or “all of the time” or “never” when not supported by the text evidence or data.  For the more discerning students, these are typically choices that can often be easily eliminated with a more careful look.

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Of course the extremist here is “A” claiming that Peanuts is the funniest where there is not any evidence in the text regarding its ranking compared to all other comic strips of the time.

The Skip and Switch

This is the choice if a step in thinking is skilled or altered.  This is a common variation of wrong answers in math or science problems.  The choice might give a correct answer to another question.  It might be a choice reached by solving the problem with an incorrect method.

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Here, choice “D” is one skip and switch, catching students who have switched the “x” and “y” variables.  Choice “c” is also a skill and skip and switch as it is the location of a different point.

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In this second example, “a” and “c” are from skipping steps and doing the order of operations out of order.  These wrong answers will typically point out misconceptions in the student thinking and thus be good for reteaching.


Anne Weerda
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Anne Weerda

This article was written by Kids at the Core founder, Anne Weerda.

Anne is an assessment and curriculum specialist best known for her work in assessment design, data analysis and instructional effectiveness. Anne is a sought after speaker in the area of assessment design, curriculum and instruction.
Anne Weerda
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