Assessment 11 Minute Read

Writing Quiz Questions

Computer and books

Quizzes are incredibly useful tools in any online course. They provide students with immediate feedback on their learning, build metacognitive skills, enhance motivation, and create a sense of accountability. As you might imagine, automatically graded quizzes also allow you to easily monitor students’ understanding without additional grading.

Here we’ll discuss tips on how to create high-quality quiz questions of these types:

  • Multiple choice1_text_black
  • Multiple answer
  • True–false
  • Matching
  • Short answer

In addition, we’ll look at some examples of how to avoid common pitfalls in writing questions and how to construct questions that test higher order thinking.

Multiple-Choice Questions

Multiple-choice questions require students to select the best possible answer from among multiple options. The question is called a “stem,” possible answers are “response items,” and wrong answers are “distractors.”

To create effective stems:

  • Keep the question concise.
  • Use simple, clear wording.
  • Avoid grammatical clues that give away the correct answer (e.g., using a or an at the end of a stem; using a singular or plural construction).
  • Avoid negative constructions (e.g., not and except).
  • If you must use a negative construction, be sure to underline or bold words such as not or except.
  • Make sure students can’t use information from one question to answer another.

To create effective response items:

  • Make sure there is only one best answer.
  • Ensure that every response is grammatically consistent with the stem.
  • Make sure response items have a parallel structure.
  • Avoid idioms and potentially confusing vocabulary.
  • Avoid absolutes (e.g., always and never).
  • Make sure the position of the correct answer varies.
  • Make the length of response items roughly consistent.
  • Eliminate repetitive or extraneous wording.
  • Use clear, consistent formatting, and indent response items from the stem.
  • Ensure that all items are mutually exclusive (i.e., avoid overlapping alternatives).
  • List response options in a logical order (e.g., alphabetically, chronologically, or numerically).
  • Avoid potentially confusing response items such as “A and B” or “B and C.” If there is more than one correct answer, use multiple-answer questions instead.
  • Avoid using all of the above and none of the above, but if you do use them, use them generously and not just when they’re the correct answer.

To create effective distractors:

  • Make every distractor sound plausible.
  • Avoid distractors that are trivial or nonsensical.
  • Use common student errors as distractors.
  • Create distractors from the elements of the correct response.

Once your stems, response items, and distractors are in place, you can add value to your quizzes by writing unique feedback for each response and distractor. Instead of simply saying “correct” and “incorrect,” consider writing feedback that explains why students are correct or where they can find the correct answer in the learning resources. That way, even in an automated medium, you help students understand the reasoning behind each response.

3_light_bulb_color2Tip: To target higher order skills, provide greater context for the questions. For example, you might develop a set of questions that requires students to analyze a small case study or scenario; a table, chart, or graph; or an incomplete scenario (e.g., a chart with missing information or a solution strategy with missing steps).

Multiple-Answer Questions

2_pc_multiple_choice_blackMultiple-answer questions are structured similarly to multiple-choice questions, except that they allow students to choose more than one correct answer. Multiple-answer questions tend to be easier to write (because you do not have to come up with as many distractors) and more challenging for students to answer (because they cannot rely on process of elimination to find the right answer). Most of the guidelines for multiple-choice questions also apply to multiple-answer questions. Just be sure that correct answers are indisputably correct and distractors are indisputably incorrect.

True–False Questions

True–false questions are fairly easy to generate and rely less on students’ language abilities than longer questions. However, because students have a 50% chance of guessing the right answer, true–false questions aren’t an optimal gauge of learning. To create effective true–false questions:

  • Avoid negatives. (The false condition creates a confusing double negative.)
  • Avoid absolutes. (They are rarely correct and students know it.)
  • Avoid ambiguous or confusing language.
  • Avoid combining multiple premises in the same sentence.
  • Target misconceptions (e.g., “True or false? The elliptical path of the earth’s orbit around the sun causes seasonal shifts in weather.”).

3_light_bulb_color2Tip: Instead of using true–false questions, you might consider combining multiple true–false statements in a single multiple-answer question. For example, instead of having several true–false questions about the characteristics of ethnography, you could ask, “Which of the following statements about ethnographic fieldwork is/are true?” Alternatively, you could ask students to correct false statements or require them to explain why false statements are false. Although these types of questions can’t be graded automatically, they do provide students with an opportunity to think through and explain their rationales, which can help you in providing corrective feedback.

Matching Questions

Matching questions usually include two columns, the first with stems and the second with responses. Students then match each stem with its appropriate response. Matching is generally useful for gauging students’ understanding of relationships, such as their ability to match the following:

  • Terms with definitions
  • Causes with likely effects
  • Parts with larger units
  • Concepts with examples or illustrations of the concept
  • Problems with appropriate tools or methods to solve them

3_light_bulb_color2Tip: One way to build critical thinking into matching questions is to allow imperfect matching—that is, to make clear that students may use some options more than once and others not at all.

Short-Answer Questions

Short-answer questions are ideal when you want students to generate answers themselves with no prompting. Although you typically need to grade these questions manually, you can provide students with an “expert” answer to which they can compare their own answers. To create short-answer questions that are fair, effective, and easy to grade, be sure to do the following:

  • Create questions that are clear, circumscribed, and precise (e.g., “How did Darwin’s theory of evolution differ from Lamarck’s?”).
  • Decide in advance how you will assess answers, assign points, assign partial credit, and so on.

Avoiding Pitfalls in Writing Questions

To avoid the pitfalls of poorly constructed quiz questions, it’s helpful to analyze examples of problematic questions and consider how you can improve them.

Problematic What’s the Problem? Improved
What is the average effective radiation dose from a chest CT?

A. 1–10 mSv
B. 10–12 mSv
C. 24–32 mSv
D. 16–24 mSv

  1. The answers overlap. (Both A and B include the value 10; both C and D include the value 24.)
  2. The response items don’t describe consistent ranges.
  3. The response items aren’t in a logical numerical order.
What is the average effective radiation dose from a chest CT?

A. 1–10 mSv
B. 11–20 mSv
C. 21–30 mSv
D. 31–40 mSv

Annuals are ______.

A. plants that live and bloom for multiple years
B. do not bloom
C. plants that live and bloom for one year
D. plants that bloom exclusively in cold climates

  1. The stem is too vague. (Students should, hypothetically, be able to answer the question without the response items.)
  2. The response items repeat the same language unnecessarily.
  3. The grammatical structure of the response items doesn’t consistently match the stem.
  4. The response items do not have parallel grammatical structure.
Which of the following is true of annuals? They ___.

A. live and bloom for multiple years
B. do not bloom
C. bloom exclusively in cold climates
D. live and bloom for one year

A system of descent in which an individual can trace ancestry through either his or her father’s or his or her mother’s line is called an:

A. Ambilineal descent system
B. Patrilineal descent system
C. Matrilineal descent system
D. Consanguineal descent system

  1. The use of the word an in the stem cues students to the fact that the correct answer begins with a vowel. This allows them to eliminate three of four answers immediately.
  2. The stem and response items contain duplicative language.
A system of descent in which an individual can trace ancestry through either his or her father’s or his or her mother’s line is called:

A. Ambilineal
B. Patrilineal
C. Matrilineal
D. Consanguineal

All of the following are stages in an oil field’s life cycle except:

A. Exploration
B. Development
C. Production
D. Drilling
E. Abandonment

  1. The question’s wording is negative rather than positive, which can create confusion.
  2. The word except is not italicized or bolded, which makes it easy for students to miss.
[Multiple-answer question]

Which of the following is true of annuals? They ___.

A. live and bloom for multiple years
B. do not bloom
C. bloom exclusively in cold climates
D. live and bloom for one year


Questions That Test Higher Order Thinking Skills

Thoughtfully constructed quiz questions can help you assess not only basic cognitive skills such as the ability to identify or define key concepts, but also higher order skills such as interpretation, generalization, inference, problem solving, application, and analysis. Here are some examples of questions that test higher order skills.

Example Why is this a good question?
A nurse is visiting a patient at home. The patient is a 78-year-old male who has had Parkinson’s disease for the past five years. Which of the following observations has the greatest implications for the patient’s care?
A. The patient’s grandchildren have not been to visit for more than a month.
B. The patient’s home has numerous throw rugs.
C. The patient has a towel wrapped around his neck that his wife uses to wipe his face.
D. The patient is gripping the arms of his chair tightly.
Students have to consider multiple facts together to make an educated judgment.
If the nominal gross national product (GNP) increases at a rate of 10% per year and the GNP deflator increases at 8% each year, then the real GNP ____.
A. remains constant
B. increases by 10%
C. decreases by 8%
D. increases by 2%
Students have to determine an outcome based on multiple premises.
E-mail is to unmoderated Listserv as office hours are to:
A. Class lecture
B. Class discussion
C. Review sessions
D. Tutorials
Students must be able to assess multicausal relationships and distinguish cause from effect.
[In combination with a bar chart on international drug usage rates]

Without any other data, which conclusions can you draw from Figure 17?
A. An average American uses more drugs than citizens of any country except the United Kingdom.
B. An average Mexican or Chilean consumes fewer drugs than citizens from other countries.
C. Americans are more likely than citizens of other countries to use new drugs.
D. The Japanese have regulations that make it difficult to obtain new drugs.

Students have to be able to read and interpret a chart and then consider each response item’s veracity separately.
Which of these historical developments in Western Europe caused the other three?
A. Decline of trade
B. Fall of Rome
C. Breakdown of central government
D. Rise in the power of the Roman Catholic Church
To determine the answer, students have to know the meaning of multiple items and be able to characterize the relationship between items in the initial set.
[Based on three chemical symbols, labeled A, B, and C, students must answer this set of questions.]

Which of the elements above has:
___1. the largest atomic weight?
___2. the largest atomic number?
___3. the lowest boiling point?
___4. the lowest melting point?
___5. the highest density?
___6. the fewest electrons?
___7. the fewest protons?

Students must be able to extract considerable information from a limited set of items.

Quizzes are beneficial for both you and your students because they can help assess students’ progress in your course. However, if you choose the wrong type of question or word a question poorly, then you won’t know for certain why students answer incorrectly. Is it because they didn’t know the content or because the format of the question confused them? To make the most of your quiz questions, be sure to follow the best practices laid out in this article, and check out the resources provided below.


“Writing Multiple-Choice Questions That Demand Critical Thinking,” by Boston University Medical Campus

“Writing Effective Questions,” by The Learning Management Corporation

Is This a Trick Question? A Short Guide to Writing Effective Test Questions, by Ben Clay, Kansas Curriculum Center

“Writing Good Multiple-Choice Test Questions,” by Cynthia J. Brame, Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching

“How to Write Better Tests: A Handbook for Improving Test Construction Skills,” by Cloud County Community College


Posted July 15, 2016
Author Marie Norman
Categories Assessment