I Admit, I Love Multiple Choice

Yes, it’s true. I’ve come to love multiple choice questions. Oh, not for assessments of any kind. They’re horrible for that (at least in my opinion). But they can’t be avoided, so I’ve learned to embrace them, and make them work for me. Now, they’ve become an integral part of many of my lessons. I use them in a few different ways now.

  1. No Distractor Style Multiple Choice

This is a technique I learned from Scott Farrand (Professor from Sacramento State) at a CMC conference at Asilomar a couple of years ago. This is a great method for homework, especially for online homework assignments. Give a problem where the correct answer is one of the options, but make the other 3 options completely wrong. The idea is that the student knows for sure if the answer is correct because she sees it or she doesn’t. The incorrect answers aren’t trying to catch a particular mistake.

If x + 3 = 11, then …

A. x = 2

B. x = 8

C. x = 10

D. x = 12

I didn’t put in any obvious or intentional distractors, so I’m not trying to “catch” a student with the wrong answer. Instead, the student gets her answer, checks my multiple choice, and gets immediate feedback so she can check her work and change her answer.

2. How Do You Get Each Answer?

My students (hopefully) learn early on that I love mistakes, because they’re great ways to learn. A multiple choice question with distractors is a great way to discover what mistakes we all can make, and how to be on the lookout for them. This is a great thing to throw into my lesson in the middle, just after we have been introduced to a concept. However, I don’t ask students which answer is right. Instead, I ask them how they can come up with the answer that they are assigned. My classes are usually in groups of 4, so I’ll assign each group one answer to investigate. They discuss the answer, attempt to solve the problem in such a way to get that answer, and figure out if the answer is correct or if they did something wrong to get there. We then come together as a class to share results, and hopefully come to a consensus on which answer is correct, and what kinds of mistakes to be on the lookout for.

3. Choose Your Own Question

This approach is based on the WODB idea. I give students the answers to a multiple choice problem, and ask them for as many questions (relevant to our unit) as possible that would make each answer true. For example, if we are covering basic trigonometry (like we are in my geometry class), students may be given a diagram with answers:


In this case, there is just enough information for every student to come up with at least one question that has a solution, and every solution has at least one valid question that can be asked. There’s great opportunity for rich differentiation here in small group discussions. Starting with a “What do you notice/wonder?” prompt with just the diagram can lead to some great questions and incredible understanding.

4. What Was The Book Thinking?

I sometimes am amazed by the mistakes I find in resource material that publishers provide to accompany their textbooks. Maybe it’s been a while since I had a 1st edition of something, but this year, my Trig/Pre-Calculus class has been using the Glencoe/McGraw Hill Precalculus as our new textbook. There are a lot of things I like about it, and a lot that I would change. I’ve been amazed at how many errors show up in their multiple choice problem answers in their PowerPoints. This past week, I came across this gem:


What a great way to discuss with my students one of the things I don’t like about multiple choice – when the correct answer is E. None of the Above, and that option just isn’t included. Not only that, but the book decided that the answer was A, and my Algebra I students would have shot that down immediately, since the plotted point was incorrect. But what did we do with this? We discussed what a better question would have been, and what better answer choices would have been. First, why is this a two part question instead of two separate questions? Second, why are the coordinates all correct, but in the wrong places? Why not just give the points, or just the coordinates, as possible answer choices?

So no, I don’t use multiple choice questions on tests. I realize that I’m pretty privileged in that my school has small class sizes. I remember the days of having 35 students per class for 4 classes, when I had no choice but multiple choice if I wanted any semblance of a life outside of school. I also remember the days when my work as a teacher was evaluated largely on the STAR test and benchmark tests that were all multiple choice, so teaching students how to take those kinds of multiple choice tests was stressed to me as an essential skill they had to learn, even more important than the math. But I have found a great place for multiple choice questions as a point of class discussion, of useful formative assessment.  Best of all, they lead to some great revelations for many students, and help to undo the stigma of making mistakes in class, because we find we all make them. Even textbook publishers who should really know better.


2 thoughts on “I Admit, I Love Multiple Choice

  1. That choose-your-own-question is fantastic. I’ve used multiple-choice as a way just to drill skills, since some of that is necessary, but making up a question for as many answers as possible is going into my bag of tricks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m always amazed by the creativity my students display, and this can be a great low floor/high ceiling activity to get everyone involved.


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