Guidelines for
Composing Multiple-Choice
Test Questions

The following guidelines are useful to consider when composing multiple-choice test questions:


Review the major concepts to be covered and direct your questions to these, rather than to obscure details.

2. Compose questions that test at various cognitive levels: factual knowledge, application, analysis, and evaluation.

A multiple-choice test questions consist of three parts:

  • the stem, which asks the question, poses a problem, or presents an incomplete sentence;
  • the correct response;
  • and four alternative responses which are incorrect, these are often called "distracters."


Write the stem of the question first.

  • Be sure the stem asks a clear question and is grammatically correct.
  • The stems should not contain irrelevant information.
  • Avoid using unfamiliar words; for some students, English is not their first language.
  • The stem should be one or two sentences in length; longer stems are appropriate where a problem is presented.
  • For clarity, emphasize words such as FALSE and NOT when they appear in the stem.
4. Next, write the correct response.
  • Keep the reading level of the stem and the response consistent.
  • Avoid too many qualifiers, such as "always" and "some."
  • When the stem is presented as an incomplete sentence attempt to limit the responses to single words or short phrases.
  • Confirm (check your notes and/or readings) that the correct response is indeed correct.
5. Read the stem and the correct response together to be sure they sound right.
6. Assign the correct response to a random position in the answer sequence.

Generate the four distracters.

  • For a cause and effect item creating a "truth" table might assist in identifying plausible distracters. An example is provided below.
The relationship is:
The effect is: True (a) Correct answer (b) Effect is true but unrelated to cause
False (c) Effect is false but related (d) Effect is a false description and unrelated


What is the effect of releasing a ball in positive gravity?

a. It will fall down. (correct)
b. It will retain its mass. (true but unrelated)
c. It will rise. (false but related)
d. Its shape will change. (false and unrelated)
e. It will explode. (false and unrelated)

This question can also be re-written where the stem presents an incomplete sentence:

A ball released in positive gravity will:

a. fall down.
b. retain its mass.
c. rise.
d. change its shape.
e. explode.

  • The construction of the correct response and the distracters should be similar.
  • Keep each statement simple.
  • The distracters should include common misconceptions that students have about the subject matter.
  • Each statement should be clearly true or clearly false.
  • Trivial details should not make a statement false.
  • Negative statements are often confusing and should be avoided.
  • Make the distracters different from one another.
  • Avoid obscure words or highly implausible distracters.
  • Avoid using "all of the above" or "none of the above."
  • Put the distracters in a logical order, where appropriate (e.g., for numeric responses order from lowest to highest, such as 1, 5, 10, 15, 20).
  • Put words which occur in all of the responses in the stem.
  • Confirm that each of the distracters is not a correct response.


Read the stem and the distracters together to be sure they sound right together.
9. Five different styles of multiple-choice questions are commonly used in tests in BIO150Y. Examples are given below; answers are provided after the final question. These questions appeared on past exams of the University of Toronto National Biology Competition.


 Examples of Styles of Test Questions

Type 1

The stem asks a question that is looking for a correct response.

In which region of the vertebrate digestive tract does the majority of nutrient absorption into the blood stream occur?


a. Stomach
b. Colon
c. Small intestine
d. Large intestine
e. Esophagus

Type 2
The stem is presented as an incomplete sentence. Complete the sentence with the correct statement. Attempt to limit each of the five responses to short phrases or single words.

Under the electron microscope, you observe a cell with three different types of large organelles, each bounded by two membranes. The cell is most likely to be from:

a. a plant.
b. an animal.
c. a fungus.
d. a bacterium.
e. a virus.

Type 3
The stem asks a directed question that is looking for either one correct or one false statement. Each of the five responses are related to a common concept and are either true or false. The first example below (about chemical bonds) has four incorrect/false statements and one correct/true statement.


Which statement about chemical bonds is CORRECT?

a. A covalent bond forms between a sodium ion and a
    chloride ion.
b. A hydrophobic interaction links an oxygen atom to
    the hydrogen atoms in a water molecule.
c. A covalent bond links an iron atom to the protein
d. An ionic bond binds complementary base pairs together in
    a double-stranded DNA molecule.
e. A hydrogen bond forms between water molecules.
  The two examples below each have four correct (true) statements. The objective is to identify the one false (incorrect) statement. The responses should not contain negative statements, as these can be confusing to interpret; such as "Water does not move from the leaf to the atmosphere by diffusion."
  4. Which statement about water movement in plants is FALSE?
    a. It occurs from a region of low to high concentration.
b. It occurs in dead cells, called tracheids and vessel elements.
c. It depends on the cohesive properties of molecules.
d. It depends on the adhesive properties of molecules.
e. Water moves from the leaf to the atmosphere by diffusion.
  5. Which of the following is NOT a function of glycolysis?

a. Production of ATP.
b. Production of NADH.
c. Production of FADH2.
d. Formation of pyruvate.
e. Splitting the carbon skeletons of simple sugars.

Type 4 More than one sentence is often needed to present the information required to answer the question or solve a problem.
  6. Some human cells divide approximately every 24 hours. You do some experiments to show that the G1 and S phases take up half of the cycle time. Further microscopic observations demonstrate that the mitotic phase is one hour long. How long does the post-synthesis "gap" take in this case?
    a. 1 hour
b. 6 hours
c. 9 hours
d. 11 hours
e. 23 hours
  7. The Swift Fox is a small mammal (about the size of a cat) that once lived throughout the prairie grasslands of central Canada. However, due to a number of factors including hunting, it had completely disappeared from Canada by the late 1970s. In an attempt to restore this species, foxes from American populations have been released in Canada. However, the number of Swift Foxes in Canada still remains low. Which factor is most likely NOT contributing to this?
a. Much of the fox's original grassland habitat has been replaced with agriculture, which has reduced the quality and quantity of habitat for the foxes and the availability of suitable prey.

b. The foxes released in early reintroductions did not survive well, likely due to a lack of knowledge of sources of food and den locations, or because the American foxes were not adapted to the longer Canadian winters.

c. Coyotes, which are increasing in numbers, are feeding on the foxes, or competing with the foxes for available resources.

d. Swift foxes are still being trapped for their pelts (fur), as they have been since the early 1800s.

e. Swift foxes may have been the unintended victim of trapping and poisoning campaigns directed at other mammals, such as coyotes, wolves, and ground squirrels.
Type 5 In this style of question identify which of the available statements (i, ii, iii, iv, and v) are correct and then select the response (a, b, c, d, or e) that contains these statements.
  8. Of the five properties listed below, which are the most important in relation to the function of the plasma membrane in living cells?

i. Selective permeability
ii. Strength
iii. Elasticity
iv. Hydrophilicity
v. Fluidity

    a. i, ii, and iii
b. i and v
c. ii and iii
d. iii and iv
e. iv and v

Answers: 1c, 2a, 3e, 4a, 5c, 6d, 7d, 8b

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