Rules in Constructing Multiple Choice Tests

A generalization of the true-false test, the multiple-choice type of test offers the student with more than two (2) options per item to choose from. Each item in a multiple-choice test consists of two parts: (a) the stem, and (b) the options. In the set of options, there is a “correct” or “best” option while all the others are considered “distracters”. The distracters are chosen in such a way that they are attractive to those who do not know the answer or are guessing but at the same time, have no appeal to those who actually know the answer. It is this feature of multiple-choice type tests that allow the teacher to test higher-order thinking skills even if the options are clearly stated. As in true-false items, there are certain rules of thumb to be followed in constructing multiple-choice tests.

Rule 1: Do not use unfamiliar words, terms and phrases. The ability of the item to discriminate or its level of difficulty should stem from the subject matter rather than from the wording of the question.

Example: What would be the system reliability of a computer system whose slave and peripherals are connected in parallel circuits and each one has a known time to failure probability of 0.05?

A student completely unfamiliar with the terms “slave” and “peripherals”may not be able to answer correctly even if he knew the subject matter of reliability.

Rule 2: Do not use modifiers that are vague and whose meanings can differ from one person to the next such as: much, often, usually, etc.

Example: Much of the process of photosynthesis takes place in the:
a. bark
b. leaf
c. stem

The qualifier “much” is vague and could have been replaced by more specific qualifiers like:” 90% of the photosynthetic process” or some similar phrase that would be more precise.

Rule 3: Avoid complex or awkward word arrangements. Also, avoid use of negatives in the stem as this may add unnecessary comprehension difficulties.


(Poor) As President of the Republic of the Philippines, Corazon Cojuangco Aquino would stand next to which President of the Philippine Republic subsequent to the 1986 EDSA Revolution?

(Better) Who was the President of the Philippines after Corazon C. Aquino?

Rule 5: Do not use negatives or double negatives as such statements tend to be confusing. It is best to use simpler sentences rather than sentences that would require expertise in grammatical construction.


(Poor) Which of the following will not cause inflation in the Philippine economy?

(Better) Which of the following will cause inflation in the Philippine economy?

(Poor) What does the statement “Development patterns acquired during the formative years are NOT Unchangeable” imply?

(Better) What does the statement “Development patterns acquired during the formative years are changeable” imply?

 Rule 5: Each item stem should be as short as possible; otherwise you risk testing more for reading and comprehension skills.

Rule 6: Distracters should be equally plausible and attractive.

Example: The short story: May Day’s Eve, was written by which Filipino author?
a. Jose Garcia Villa
b. Nick Joaquin
c. Genoveva Edrosa Matute
d. Robert Frost
e. Edgar Allan Poe

If distracters had all been Filipino authors, the value of the item would be greatly increased. In this particular instance, only the first three carry the burden of the entire item since the last two can be essentially disregarded by the students.

Rule 7: All multiple choice options should be grammatically consistent with the stem.

Rule 8: The length, explicitness, or degree of technicality of alternatives should not be the determinants of the correctness of the answer. The following is an example of this rule:

Example: If the three angles of two triangles are congruent, then the triangles are:
a. congruent whenever one of the sides of the triangles are congruent
b. similar
c. equiangular and therefore. must also be congruent
d. equilateral if they are equiangular

The correct choice, “b,” may be obvious from its length and explicitness alone. The other choices are long and tend to explain why they must be the correct choices forcing the students to think that they are, in fact, not the correct answers!

Rule 9: Avoid stems that reveal the answer to another item.

Rule 10: Avoid alternatives that are synonymous with others or those that, include or overlap others.

Example: What causes ice to transform from solid state to liquid state’?
a. Change in temperature
b. Changes in pressure
c. Change in the chemical composition
d. Change in heat levels

The options a and d are essentially the same. Thus, a student who spots these identical choices would right away narrow down the field of choices to a, b, and c. The last distracter would play no significant role in increasing the value of the item.

Rule 11: Avoid presenting sequenced items in the same order as in the text.

Rule 12: Avoid use of assumed qualifiers that many examinees may not be aware of.

Rule 13: Avoid use of unnecessary words or phrases, which are not relevant to the problem at hand (unless such discriminating ability is the primary intent of the evaluation). The items value is particularly damaged if the unnecessary material is designed to distract or mislead. Such items test the student’s reading comprehension rather than knowledge of the subject matter.

Example: The side opposite the thirty degree angle in a right triangle is equal to half the length of the hypotenuse. If the sine of a 30-degree is 0.5 and its hypotenuse is 5, what is the length of the side opposite the 30-degree angle?
a. 2.5
b. 3.5
c. 5.5
d. 1.5

The sine of a 30-degree angle is really quite unnecessary since the first sentence already gives the method for finding the length of the side opposite the thirty-degree angle. This is a case of a teacher who wants to make sure that no student in his class gets the wrong answer!

Rule 14:  Avoid use of non-relevant sources of difficulty such as requiring a complex calculation when only knowledge of a principle is being tested.

Note in the previous example, knowledge of the sine of the 30-degree angle would have led some students to use the sine formula for calculation even if a simpler approach would have sufficed.

Rule 15: Avoid extreme specificity requirements in responses.

Rule 16: Include as much of the item as possible in the stem. This allows for less repetition and shorter choice options.

Rule 17: Use the “None of the above” option only when the keyed answer is totally correct. When choice of the “best” response is intended, “none of the above” is not appropriate, since the implication h
as already been made that the correct response may be partially inaccurate.

Rule 18: Note that the use of “all of the above” may allow credit for partial knowledge. In a multiple option item, (allowing only one option choice) if a student only knew that two (2) options were correct, he could then deduce the correctness of “all of the above”. This assumes you are allowed only one correct choice.

Rule 19: Having compound response choices may purposefully increase difficulty of an item.

Rule 20: The difficulty of a multiple choice item may be controlled by varying the homogeneity or degree of similarity of responses. The more homogeneous, the more difficult the item.


(Less Homogeneous) Thailand is located in:
a. Southeast Asia
b. Eastern Europe
c. South America
d. East Africa
e. Central America 

(More Homogeneous) Thailand is located next to:
a. Laos and Kampuchea
b. India and China
c. China and Malaya
d. Laos and China
e. India and Malaya