In a Block Mode unit, online tests that are graded automatically can be used to build both depth and breadth of learning and provide opportunities for students to gauge their progress. Multiple choice questions are often considered to be testing knowledge at a low level, i.e. memory recall, but if you put the time into writing good questions, you can cover higher order thinking skills, such as application, integration and evaluation.

When developing multiple choice questions for an online test, use the guidelines below to construct the question and its answer choices to ensure that the learner needs to have mastered the knowledge in order to select the correct answer.

Guidelines for writing questions

Use direct questions

Prepare multiple-choice items as direct questions rather than incomplete statements. 

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Incomplete statement format

The capital of Australia is in ________

Direct question format

In which of the following cities is the capital of Australia?

Use a single problem

Use only a single, clearly defined problem and include the main idea in the question. Students must know what the problem is without having to read the response options.

Use memory-plus application questions

Emphasise higher-level thinking by placing the concept in a life situation or context that requires the student to first recall the facts and then apply or transfer the application of those facts into a situation.

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A 'memory-only' question

Which description best characterises whole foods?

  1. orange juice
  2. toast
  3. bran cereal
  4. grapefruit

A 'memory-plus application' question

Sally’s breakfast this morning included one glass of orange juice (from concentrate), one slice of toast, a small bowl of bran cereal and a grapefruit. What ‘whole food’ did Sally eat for breakfast?

  1. orange juice
  2. toast
  3. bran cereal
  4. grapefruit


Use plausible distractors

Refer to answers given in previous open-ended quizzes to determine realistic distractors and ensure all of the wrong answer choices are completely reasonable.

Use only one correct option

Include only one correct or clearly best answer. Alternatives should be mutually exclusive and not overlapping.

Keep all answer choices the same length

Answer options should be about the same length and parallel in grammatical structure. Avoid making your correct answer either the long or short answer in the group.

Avoid clues

Avoid answering one question by giving the answer somewhere else in the test.

Avoid negative questions

Students may be able to find an incorrect answer without knowing the correct answer.

Avoid ‘all of the above’ or ‘none of the above’

This can encourage guessing. You will never know if students really know the correct answer.

Mix up the order of the correct answers

Keep correct answers in random positions and don’t let them fall into a pattern that can be detected.

Use simple sentence structure and precise wording

  • Write questions in a simple structure that is easy to understand.
  • Use words that should be familiar to your students.
  • Avoid extremes – never, always, only.
  • Avoid nonsense words and unreasonable statements.
  • Have the test reviewed to find mistakes, clues, grammar and punctuation problems.

Find out more

BYU Faculty Center. (2001). 14 Rules for Writing Multiple-Choice Questions.pdf (application/pdf Object) (p. 5). Retrieved from

Dickinson, M. (2011). Writing Multiple Choice Questions for Higher-Level Thinking, Learning Solutions Newsletter.

Malamed, C. (2012). 10 Rules For Writing Multiple Choice Questions, the eLearning coach.

Morrison, S. (2001). Writing multiple-choice test items that promote and measure critical thinking, Journal of Nursing Education; Thorofare Vol. 40, Iss. 1, (Jan 2001): pp.17-24.