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Multiple Choice Questions-Key-Distractors

Assessments are an exercise wherein the academic performance of a student is measured in absolute and relative terms. It gives an idea about the extent of subject knowledge acquired/possessed by a learner. An assessment may be carried out at the time of admission, pursuance or completion of a course. It usually comprises different questions in different formats which are to be answered within a limited time.
Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs) are one of the most widely-adopted formats for developing assessments today. An assessment may comprise MCQs in part or in full. This article examines the origins of the first MCQs, the comparison of MCQs with traditional essay type assessments and the evolution of MCQs to their present-day form.

The First MCQs

Multiple Choice Questions were not an integral element of the academic assessment systems from the beginning of the formal education system. Not at least until an educator realised that a student’s performance in a test or class is likely to be evaluated differently by different teachers/instructors. Another important observation the educator could make was that the assessment process used to be time taking for teachers/instructors. Thus, in the efforts to get around and over these two hurdles, the first ever MCQs were developed.

Some benefits of the MCQ based tests were obvious. The tests could be conducted for a very large number of examinees and the process of evaluation and assessment still did not take much time. In addition, the answers could also be graded by someone who was not necessarily a teacher/instructor. The students’ performance was not likely to be evaluated differently by different teachers/instructors. The MCQs thus standardized the tests.

The Contrast

The new MCQ based tests offered an edge over the traditional essay type tests and were widely accepted into the education system. However, there was always a counterview. MCQs were considered to have a lower educational value. It was believed that answering essay type tests required examinees to not only possess but also demonstrate their depth of knowledge. Essay questions also made it incumbent upon the examinees to develop creative thinking and effective writing skills. Multiple Choice Questions were not believed to help a student develop logical and analytical thinking. They were believed to help students score, merely on their ability to memorize.

However, the public education system was expanding, thereby pushing the need to have a measure that could help meet the assessment requirements for an increasing number of students. The new education system also required a versatile mechanism to not only evaluate an individual’s progress in absolute terms but also compare with that of other students across schools and geographies. The Multiple Choice Questions were thus the need of the hour.

The following links are recommended for an in-detail reading about how MCQs compare with essay type questions.

Need to Evolve

The true utility of an assessment not only lies in grading examinees but also in helping them identify their weaknesses. An assessment also provides teachers/instructors with an idea about the weaknesses of their students. The valuable insights obtained from an assessment help teachers/instructors develop effective teaching strategies for specific topics, in which students have been found to be weak.

Traditional MCQ based assessments had been known to offer a faster, standardized, scalable alternative for grading students’ performance. However, the possibility of employing traditional MCQs based assessments as a tool to identify the students’ level or extent of learning was yet to be explored.

Structure of a Multiple Choice Questions

In general, the structure of a multiple choice statement comprises a problem statement (called the stem) and four/five options listed under it. Usually, only one of the options from amongst the given list of four/five options is correct. It is called the key. The rest of the incorrect options from the list are called ‘distractors’.

While attempting an MCQ, an examinee/student, who has not studied well, is likely to choose one of the distractors (incorrect options) as the answer. The distractors seem to be the right answer but are not. They are, in fact, erroneously drawn from the correct answer (the key), and hence seem to be the right answer.

The choice of a particular distractor depends on the level of understanding and learning of an examinee/student. If the student has learnt the topic pertaining to a question properly, he chooses the key. If he has not, he is likely to be misled by the distractors and chooses one of them as the answer.

Readers may refer to the following links to get a first-hand idea about the structure of an MCQ.

Role of Distractors

An MCQ may have three/four distractors, each of which corresponds to a different level of knowledge/understanding, pertaining to a topic. The key corresponds to the complete level of knowledge/understanding of a topic.

Thus, a particular distractor, when chosen as an answer, would reflect the level of knowledge/understanding of an examinee/student.

The distractors can play a very important role in helping an instructor understand the level of knowledge the student(s) have developed across one or multiple topics. The feedback can be employed by the teacher/instructor in developing effective teaching/instruction strategy.

Designing Distractors

The choice of distractors for an MCQ thus cannot be made randomly. It has to be made thoughtfully. Distractors can serve as a vital tool to help identify the subject topics in which the examinee needs to make efforts to improve their overall knowledge level.
To begin with, the distractors may be such chosen that they correspond to different levels of knowledge/understanding of a particular topic on which the question is being framed, such that they all seem to be the correct answer.

A detailed taxonomy of rationale (with examples) titled “The Distractor Rationale Taxonomy: Enhancing Multiple Choice Items in Reading and Mathematics” from Pearson may be accessed here.
Additionally, the distractors should be clear, should have the same language as the stem and be of the same length. Distractors should not overlap in content or carry a hint in their language, structure or otherwise.

The reader may refer to the following webpages to get a detailed idea about the design of MCQs.

1.University of Waterloo 2.Vanderbilt University

In addition to the resources/links cited in the article above, the following resources have also been referred to for the development of this article.

  1. Hack Education (Multiple Choice and Testing Machines: A History)

The following resources are suggested for further reading.

  • The Role of Assessment by Fisseha Mikre.
  • Writing Good Multiple Choice Exams by Dawn M. Zimmaro, Ph.D., The University of Texas at Austin.
  • The Test by Anya KamenetzYou may also refer to other blog articles on our site.

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