Designing and using multiple choice questions in computing
24 October 2019
Carefully designed multiple choice questions (MCQs) are a powerful and effective tool for assessing and addressing misconceptions held by learners. Good question design is both challenging and time-consuming (Dell and Wantuch, 2017; Kay and LeSage, 2009), because effective questions need carefully selected wrong answers or “distractors”. When used well in the classroom, MCQs provide valuable insight into a learner’s understanding or misconceptions, depending on the answer that they select. This insight allows educators to make well-informed decisions about how to support individual learners, or indeed, their whole class.
Questions, methodologies, and tools
When talking about MCQs, it can become easy to conflate three key aspects: the design of the question, how and when those questions are used, and any tools or technologies used to facilitate the questions. Here we will primarily focus on the questions themselves, with a brief discussion of methodologies and appropriate tools.
What makes a good question?
The key feature of a good multiple choice question is that each incorrect answer checks for a specific misconception. If a learner gets the answer wrong, their answer should show how or why they got it wrong. In other words, what misconception led the student to answer in that way, and furthermore, how can that misconception be addressed? When designing multiple choice questions, educators should avoid selecting random (likely more obvious) distractors and instead consider what misconceptions the learners might have and what answers that would lead to.
Top tips for writing questions:
- When considering what misconceptions a learner might have, educators can draw on a number of sources, including their own experience of what learners often get wrong, the experience of other educators, or even academic research.
- Questions should be short and address a single concept. If the questions have too many steps or require too much thought, it will be hard to pinpoint the learners’ misunderstandings. In order to tackle a longer task or process, consider breaking it down into smaller questions.
- The question should be difficult to guess, and ideally, not possible to answer correctly if the learner holds a misconception. When posing questions, it is useful to get an explanation from the learner as well as their answer.
- Crowdsource and share your questions, collaborate on their development, and test other educators’ questions. The misconceptions observed by other educators may be completely different to your own.
- It is good practice to provide a rationale for each incorrect answer given. This will make it clear what misconception the answer is designed to detect, and will make sharing and iteration easier.
Using MCQs in Practice
One of the benefits to using MCQs in teaching is the relative speed with which they can provide clear feedback and expose learners’ misconceptions. They can be used in a variety of different ways, both during lessons and in between, however they should always inform teaching. Each question provides a rich snapshot of understanding from a group, but the question is only valuable if it informs what the educator does next. If most learners answer the question correctly, you will likely proceed and assume that most are comfortable with that concept. The question may highlight a small group that share the same misconception and require some additional support. The question may also completely split the group, or everyone may answer it incorrectly. Each of these scenarios will likely lead to a different follow-up activity, or even a related follow-up question.
There are many ways to include multiple choice questions in practice, whether as part of a summative assessment after some learning, before some new learning to check that students have the prerequisite knowledge, during a lesson to gauge understanding, individually, or through group discussions.
Multiple choice questions are commonly used as a homework or flipped learning task in which learners reflect on past learning or prepare for something new. Teachers might also pose single questions to kick-start the lesson, or use questions throughout to punctuate the learning.
A related practice, which is based on MCQs, is ‘peer instruction’. In peer instruction, students answer a question individually, then discuss it in pairs, then discuss it in groups, until the class comes to a shared view. The conversations instigated through peer instruction allow learners to challenge each other’s misconceptions as peers.
Another great way to deepen students’ understanding of a concept is to ask them to generate their own MCQ with carefully selected answers.
There are many great ways to use multiple choice questions with learners, whether they are a regular feature of lessons or not. The key consideration, however, is the strength of the question, and what it will tell you about what your learners think.
Find out more
There are some great tools, sites and further reading that may support you to use MCQs effectively:
- Craig Barton has written extensively about using MCQs or “Diagnostic Questions” in maths
- Eedi and Project Quantum are great platforms for asking questions and evaluating responses, and already contain hundreds of crowdsourced questions
- The Subject Knowledge Assessments from the National Centre for Computing Education can help with your classroom assessments
Pick a concept, design a question, and discuss it with a colleague. Share your question online or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Director of Learning Commons/Teacher of Computer Science at Devonport High School for boys
I use Quizizz to deliver MCQs as a way to mark [the students’] home learning. I use a flipped approach, and I want to know if they have actually done the work and if there are any common misconceptions that need addressing. The questions I use are the ones created by OCR and they have been put together and shared by other CS teachers (saving loads of time and effort).
Quizizz allows me to see which questions were answered wrong and to look for patterns. These are then addressed in the lesson when we embed the homework by doing tasks in the classroom, based around that content. I do this for both GCSE and A level, but it is worth noting that this quick-fire way of assessing does not show how they can transfer this knowledge into a full answer for an exam-style question, but is great for understanding misconceptions and quickly assessing homework.
Assistant Head Teacher at Saffron Walden County High School
I use multiple choice questions for retrieval practice. I read a very interesting piece of research that supports the idea that compared to recall questions, MCQs allow the brain to retrieve associated memories that allow the learner to remember why the wrong answer was wrong as well as the correct answer. This avoids ‘retrieval-induced forgetting’ where the learner forgets associated memories. The key is to make the choices ‘competitive’ and so I make sure this is carefully thought about in my design. I use MCQ for starters normally and I project the answers on the board for students to note answers in their books or to prompt whole class discussion.
About the author
James Robinson, Senior Learning Manager (Pedagogy & Training) at the Raspberry Pi Foundation.