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The Guidelines Every Teacher Needs To Create Effective MCQs

Multiple choice questions or MCQs are less subject to guessing. They are the most common objective-type questions. In addition, they can be used to assess higher-level thinking.

An MCQ has a number of alternative choices from which the student must select the correct answer to get the full mark. It is generally recommended that one uses 4 choices per question. Using fewer alternatives often results in items with inferior characteristics. The item choices are typically identified on the test copy by the letters A through D.

Components of the MCQ:

The stem 

It is the part of the multiple-choice item in which the problem is stated for the student. It can be a question, a set of directions or a statement with an embedded blank.


They are the choices given for the embedded blank in the stem of the multiple-choice item.

The key 

It is the correct choice for the multiple-choice item.


They are the incorrect choices for the multiple-choice item.

Guidelines for Good Stems:

The entire stem must always precede the alternatives and it should contain the problem and any clarifications.

  • Start the stems clearly presenting a single, clear problem or question in each stem.
  • Avoid negative phrases or irrelevant material in the stems.
  • Don’t use exaggerations or extreme words when writing the stem such as “all, none, never, always, etc
  • Avoid negatively stated stems.
  • If an omission occurs in the stem, it should appear near the end of the stem and not at the beginning.
  • Use correct grammar in the stem.
  • Avoid repeating words between the stem and the alternatives.
  • To test understanding of a term or concept, present the term in the stem and put the definitions or descriptions in the alternatives.

Guidelines for Good Alternatives (Options):

  • Put alternatives in a logical sequence (e.g., temporal sequence, length of the choice). If two alternatives are very similar (cognitively or visually), they should be placed next to one another to allow students to compare them more easily.
  • Make all alternatives grammatically consistent with the stem.
  • All alternatives should be homogeneous in content, form, and grammatical structure.
  • Alternatives should not overlap in meaning or be synonymous with one another.
  • The length, explicitness, and technical information in each alternative should be parallel so as not to give away the correct answer.
  • Avoid clues to the right answer, using “all of the above” or “none of the above” in the alternatives.
  • Avoid terms such as “always” or “never,” in the choices.

Guidelines for Good Distractors:

  • Make all distractors plausible and attractive. It is often useful to use popular misconceptions and frequent mistakes as distractors.
  • Item distractors should include correct forms and vocabulary that actually exist in the language.
  • Ensure that distractions are incorrect, but reasonable and presented in a logical order.
  • Distractors should be similar in length and parallel in grammatical structure.
  • When writing distractors, use words that are familiar to students.

When Reviewing an MCQ,

Consider whether the stem:

  • presents a clearly defined problem to the student,
  • contains unnecessary information,
  • could be more simply, clearly or concisely.

Consider whether the alternatives

  • are parallel in structure.
  • fit logically and grammatically with the stem.
  • could be more simply, clearly or concisely.

Consider whether the key

  • is the best answer among the set of options for the item.
  • actually, answers the question posed in the stem.
  • is too obvious relative to the other alternatives.

Consider whether the distractors,

  • contain one or more items a student can consider as a correct answer.
  • are plausible enough to be attractive to students who are low achievers.
  • contain one or more that can call attention to the key.

For more knowledge on preparing a good language test and writing effective test items, you can get my book:

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It is a practical guide to constructing effective test questions. It provides teachers with step-by-step instructions they need to go deeper, further and faster toward making a success in preparing effective classroom exams with ease and comfort.

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After reading this guide, teachers will be able to:

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  • Use and develop effective test items following appropriate guidelines.
  • Avoid common pitfalls in testing their students.
  • Grade essay tests more effectively and fairly.

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2 thoughts on “The Guidelines Every Teacher Needs To Create Effective MCQs

  1. Atef says:

    Thanks a lot

  2. dohemes says:

    Great article! Here is a link where you can find out what is https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiple_choice

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