Why unlocking the power of good multiple-choice questions can enhance your modern learning strategy
We’ve all been there: bad tests with unclear questions, tricky distractors and answer choices packed with so much legalese that the correct option is obvious. Or not knowing the right answer but going with “C” because… that always works. (And that’s a problem!)
So, what’s the true power of good multiple-choice questions and why do so many struggle to write them?
JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect at Axonify, sat down for a discussion LIVE on LinkedIn with Dr. Patti Shan—internationally-recognized learning expert and author of Write Better Multiple-Choice Questions To Assess Learning—to unpack the benefits of good questions, how to write them and why they’re an essential part of a modern workplace learning strategy.
Read on for the highlights of their insightful Q&A below and find out how to improve your multiple-choice questions so they can efficiently measure a wide range of important learning outcomes, not just recall.
JD: Why do multiple-choice questions get such a bad rap as part of the L&D toolkit? Is there something wrong with the format or is it about how they’re being used in learning programs?
Dr. Shank: I think it’s how they’re being used. In my experience, multiple-choice questions have a bad rap because people don’t understand them. They’re so poorly written and everyone has experience with that. If all you’ve seen is bad questions, you’re going to think they’re all bad. There may be other reasons why they’re [not working].
Questions are at the heart of learning and they activate our brains for deep processing. And deep processing is exactly what we need when we’re training or designing.
JD: Why are people so good at writing bad multiple-choice questions? Is it that hard to write good ones, or are we looking at the content format wrong?
Dr. Shank: It is hard, actually. Because it’s easy to write a bad multiple-choice question. But if you can write a good multiple-choice question, you can write a good question in general. I have students in my course who take this approach to learn how to write a good scenario. Because it’s the same thing: you have to pick one answer and you’re not writing it yourself.
The research shows that if we do this really well, they can be considered certification-level questions.
JD: How do you define a good multiple-choice question?
Dr. Shank: A good question has at least these two characteristics, and they’re both really hard.
One, they measure the right things. Not the things that are the easiest to measure, but important aspects of a well-written learning objective. And those themselves are not easy to do.
Two, they are written correctly so they don’t trip you up—because tricking people is an absolute no-no—and they’re written in a way that’s easy to understand what it is you’re asking.
Your questions should measure the actual intellectual task that someone must do, not whether or not they remember the content.
JD: Right. Because learning should be challenging but the challenge should be in applying your knowledge, not in understanding what you’re being asked to do.
“Questions are at the heart of learning, and they activate our brains for deep processing. And deep processing is exactly what we need when we’re training or designing.”
-Dr. Patti Shank
JD: Can you walk us through, at a high level, what the process is for writing a multiple-choice question?
Dr. Shank: The very first thing you need to do is to figure out what you’re trying to measure. The best way to do that is to write all of your learning objectives and to write them in a certain way so they are performance objectives, and we know exactly what someone needs to be able perform. And then we can use those learning objectives to come up with the most important things people need to be able to do when they’re doing that task.
The second thing is to pick a format. Most of our formats should be the typical multiple-choice question because everyone knows how to answer those. But there are some really nifty formats that are really good for specific purposes.
Write the correct answer first because that’s always the easiest. And then use the process I explained earlier, which comes directly from research, to write the distractors.
JD: What’s your recommendation for L&D professionals who want to get better at writing good multiple-choice questions?
Dr. Shank: I wrote the book because there isn’t one. The books from other multiple-choice researchers are not always that easy to read because they assume that you’re also a researcher because that’s who they’re writing for. If you already know how to write multiple-choice questions and you want a tome of what the research says, Shrock and Coscarelli’s book is probably the best—especially in the training world.
Well-constructed, multiple-choice assessment is an important component of any workplace learning program. The key is to make sure the questions are written with a clear learning objective in mind that accurately measures the desired knowledge, skill or competency to meet the needs of your organization.