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Multiple-Choice Questions in TEFL

A Multiple Choice Question on a BoardMultiple-Choice Questions are a tried and tested method of checking how much your students know.

This article looks at the practical side of things for TEFL teachers: writing a good question and preparing your students for multiple-choice questions in exams.

Before going on, a couple of items: the first part of a multiple-choice question is called the stem; then come (usually) 4 responses; within these there are usually 3 distractors and one correct answer. Back to the article now!

Let’s take a typical scenario. You want to check your students’ vocabulary. You set a test and include a question like this:

I carry all my books to school in my _____
a) bookshelf
b) satchel
c) tent
d) trashcan

And hopefully your students will all choose b and you will know they all know what a satchel is. Or none of them choose b and you will know they do not know what a satchel is so you can teach it to them in the next lesson.

That’s what multiple-choice questions are all about!

Writing a Good Multiple-Choice Question

Remember first that multiple-choice questions don’t test creativity or critical thinking. They are best suited for simple yes/no knowledge tests: does the student know this or not?

To begin, then, make sure you know what you are testing and in TEFL this is usually vocabulary or grammatical constructions the students have covered previously. Let’s suppose you have covered most common prepositions with your class and want to make sure they know how to use them correctly. You could easily construct a few stems like this:

The cat was ____ the bed.
The car is _____ the garage.
He put the hat _____ his head.

First off, the responses should all be plausible. There is no point in giving obviously wrong or ridiculous response as this achieves nothing in terms of testing a student’s knowledge. So avoid responses like d below:

I’ve got $20 _____ my pocket.
a) in
b) above
c) without
d) elephant

And while we are here, don’t make any response stand out in terms of length or construction. This will puzzle a student who will spend time wondering if there’s a catch or why one response is so radically different from the others. You won’t be testing their knowledge, you will distracting them intentionally.

Can you see that yellow bird sitting _____ the apple tree?
a) in
b) after
c) below
d) north-by-northwest and seventeen degrees to starboard

Ok, it’s a silly answer but you get the point!

Thirdly, don’t leave any grammatical clues behind. Look at this question:

She gave me an _____ bunch of flowers for my birthday.
a) expensive
b) happily
c) beautifully
d) colorfully

You might want to see if your students can identify adjectives, but since only one of the responses begins with a vowel and the article is an, only one response fits in grammatically here. This means your question does not test what it set out to test and is thus pretty worthless.

Finally, and most importantly, only one of the responses can be correct. So many times we have come across multiple-choice questions which have more than one possible correct answer, even those set by so-called official exam authorities.

Suppose you wanted to test your student’s knowledge of the present perfect. You might write an multiple-choice question like this:

Our local representative ____ a lot of time in Washington.
a) has been spending
b) will be spending
c) is spending
d) should spend

Ridiculous. All four responses are correct depending on the circumstances. It may be obvious in the example above, but take this example:

He carried all his books to school in his _____
a) satchel
b) wardrobe
c) filing cabinet
d) bus

There is an obvious correct answer, but all four responses are correct grammatically speaking and at least two of them could be correct if we look at circumstance (a student with a satchel is fine but suppose we talk about a bus driver going to night school who might well carry his books in his bus). And if one is a little inventive, then all four responses could be correct under (admittedly slightly strange) circumstances.

The point is that when you write a multiple-choice question, make sure you read it through thoroughly and if at all possible get another teacher to check it over to make sure that there is definitely only one correct answer. It’s easy to make mistakes and miss the obvious so double check.

Students Answering Questions

On the other side of the coin, it’s very likely that your students will sooner or later take an official exam and come up against multiple-choice questions. Here are a few tips to give them when they do.

  • Make sure they read the stem and each response very carefully indeed. A single missed preposition could make the difference between right and wrong so they mustn’t rush through thinking it’s easy and they know the right answer without even reading the final two responses. The key is to go carefully!
  • Some students like to cover up the responses and just read the stem and see if they know the answer already. When they look at the responses if they see their own answer there’s a good chance it’s correct; but regardless, they should check through all the responses before writing the answer.

This cover-up method can help some students (although it takes a little more time) so when you have the chance, try it out with your class. Some students may like it and want to use it; others of course may hate the idea. Whatever their reaction, don’t force them to use it or try to make them do something they don’t feel comfortable doing. The student is taking the exam and they need to feel as relaxed as possible so don’t push any extra stress onto them.

Back in the exam, if a student is 100% certain then it’s straightforward: they write down the answer and move on.

But what if they are not?

At this point they must guess. There’s no other way around it. Worst case scenario is that they have a 1 in 4 chance of getting it correct, but it’s often easy to increase those odds. Here are some tips on doing that.They are by no means foolproof and widely open to criticism, but they are better than nothing!

  • discard any plainly wrong responses to increase the odds dramatically
  • look for opposites in the responses; often the answer will be one of these
  • if two responses look very similar, often the answer is one of them
  • deliberately “funny” answers are usually wrong

Finally, if all else fails and your student has no idea, tell them to choose b or c because sometimes exam setters (those which aren’t computers, of course) feel they need to “hide” the right answer.

changing answers

There is a common myth going around that students should trust their first answer and shouldn’t change their choice. Beware encouraging your students to do this at exam time! Research has found that although students often felt that changing their answers was bad, it generally led to higher scores.

Several studies have shown that approximately 20% of changes have been for the worse (i.e. the student changed from right to wrong) but almost 60% resulted in a change for the better (i.e. from wrong to right). This means that if a student thinks their first answer could be wrong, encourage them to work through the question and change it if a better answer suggests itself!

Useful Links

Exam Nerves‏‎ – some tips on reducing exam nerves.

Teaching Exam Classes – how to teach exam classes.

Cloze or Gap Fill Tests – a slightly different kind of test question.

 

2 Responses to Multiple-Choice Questions in TEFL

  1. Sophie Scones says:

    Thank you for a very enlightening piece. You have given me food for thought.

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