Multiple-choice questions: pros and cons

Multiple-choice questions should contain a question (known as the stem), the correct answer (key) and distractors (other plausible options). Multiple-choice questions can be used at different points in the learning process, to check for understanding or as a low stakes retrieval task. There are a range of benefits linked to using this quizzing technique in the classroom. However, multiple-choice questioning has limitations and is not a perfect classroom strategy, no classroom strategy is. Below are some pros and cons to consider when planning, designing and using multiple-choice questions (MCQs).

Pros of multiple-choice questions:

  • MCQs are a flexible questioning technique, they can be used at various points in a lesson and throughout the learning process. MCQs can be used for both formative and summative assessment and can be used inside or outside of the classroom. MCQs can be versatile in terms of the content and type of questions asked which can range from factual recall to higher order thinking (if the questions are carefully crafted).
  • MCQs can provide retrieval support for younger students and students with learning difficulties making retrieval practice more accessible and the challenge desirable. They can be differentiated through scaffolded question design. Initial retrieval success is important and having the correct answer visible increases the likelihood of success and that can lead to increased confidence and motivation.
  • MCQs for quizzing can be flexible in terms of time spent in a lesson. MCQs can be delivered relatively quickly, not dominating lesson time also meaning more time can be used for meaningful feedback and discussion. As students can answer MCQs fairly quickly, in comparison to free recall or extended answers, this means more questions can be asked to test a significant amount of knowledge and content. A concern with checking for understanding and retrieval practice, can be finding the time to do so in addition to teaching a demanding and content heavy curriculum. Checking for understanding and retrieval practice are essential and cannot be abandoned but MCQs can assist in terms of timing within a lesson.
  • MCQs can support responsive teaching in the classroom. Carefully designed MCQs can address potential misconceptions that may have developed in previous lessons, this is very useful for the teacher to be aware of and respond to.
  • MCQs are graded and scored objectively – answers are either right or wrong, no need for moderation or review. MCQs can be workload friendly in terms of feedback and marking. There are a variety of digital tools that can provide instant feedback to students. Alternatively, students can self or peer assess MCQs, monitored by the teacher.
  • Another workload benefit of MCQs is that a carefully constructed quiz can be repeated and used again, to assist with regular and spaced retrieval practice.
  • MCQs can be used with students across different ages and different subjects. MCQs can and ideally should be used across year groups/departments to promote consistency of the content being quizzed. The questions can be the same but the teacher can have flexibility of delivery of the MCQ for example one teacher may use a digital tool to ask questions but their colleague may prefer to embed questions into their presentations with students using mini white boards to respond. The questions used for MCQ quizzes can be designed so they can be used for short answer questions, simply removing the distractors and correct answer to increase the level of challenge.

Cons of multiple-choice questions:

  • If MCQs are not designed well they won’t require effortful or meaningful retrieval but instead it is more likely to involve low level recognition or power of elimination. Distractors must be plausible and this can be a challenge for teachers to think of plausible distractors. Two plausible distractors and the correct option is sufficient. Writing carefully designed questions and plausible options can also be time consuming. A good way to address this is to view other teachers’ quizzes and use or adapt questions or alternatively, a great idea is to work together within a department or phase to design MCQ quizzes.
  • MCQs can be used for both summative and formative assessments but if MCQs are used for end of unit tests or any form of high stakes assessment it can be difficult for them to be viewed as a low stakes retrieval task by learners. Some students will make the distinction but it is important that the teacher communicates with their class the purpose of the MCQ quiz.
  • A reason some educators are opposed to or reluctant to use MCQs can be due to the fact that there is potential for guess work. It can be difficult for teachers to know if students selected or recalled correct information or simply guessed (although they are likely to be more reliable than simple true/false) and there are ways to tackle this through elaboration and further questioning.
  • There are some online quizzing tools that use timers and award points to students depending on the speed of their answers. This encourages students to rush, not read questions carefully and make errors. Students with learning difficulties or English as an additional language, may need longer to read and process the question and for selecting or recalling the information, but a timer can cause pressure and/or panic.
  • Students don’t always check their answers and reflect on their progress, preferring to view scores rather than identify and address the gaps in their knowledge but this is a vital element of the learning process to continue to move learners forward. If a student has scored 15/20 on a MCQ quiz they should be encouraged to check and be aware of which answers were correct and incorrect so they can learn from their mistakes and avoid repeating those mistakes.
  • There is no flexibility in terms of credit with MCQs – either incorrect or correct, even if the students have some knowledge linked to the question that will not be awarded or recognised. This can be frustrating for the student.
  • MCQs as a strategy to promote retrieval practice has limitations. There must be opportunities provided for students for free recall and elaboration. Teachers should not rely solely on MCQs for retrieval practice. Other strategies can and should be used in addition to MCQs.

There are both pros and cons but it is clear there is a place for multiple-choice questions in the classroom. They can enhance learning by checking for understanding, identifying misconceptions and used for regular retrieval practice. MCQs can also be used to promote consistency across a curriculum and support teacher workload.

You can read more about multiple-choice questions in a previous blog here.

For more resources on questioning, check out our podcast with Michael Chiles on ‘questioning in the classroom’. All of our resources are available in our free Resource Library.

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