Writing Multiple Choice Questions that Measure Higher Order Thinking

January 8, 2015 Sarah Zahl

Why are multiple choice questions one of the most popular types of items included on examinations in higher education?

A) Multiple choice questions are easy to write.
B) All faculty enjoy the process of creating distractors.
C) Students report that multiple choice exams are the best part of their college experience.
D) Well written multiple choice questions can measure multiple levels of cognitive learning.

Correct answer: D

I was very nice and made the correct answer an obvious choice. Allow my question to serve as an example of a method you should not use when writing multiple choice questions. While my question was easy (and hopefully humorous), it did not measure higher order thinking because the distractors were obviously incorrect.

This question provides an example of one of the reasons that multiple choice questions have a negative reputation. It is often assumed that these questions measure only lower level thinking or rote memorization of facts and figures. However, multiple choice questions can be written to measure all cognitive levels on Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy – knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

Each multiple choice question should be designed to measure a student’s achievement of a specific level of Bloom’s taxonomy. For example, in most courses, you wouldn’t want to write an exam that includes 50 items that measure a student’s synthesis of knowledge. Rather, you would want to evaluate if students know the material, if they can apply it, and if they can synthesize and evaluate it.

Importantly, the levels of your multiple choice questions should be based on the learning objectives and outcomes for your course. Obviously, an examination in an introductory course for freshmen may measure lower levels of learning than an exam in a graduate level biology course. Similarly, exams at the beginning of a course may measure lower levels of learning than the assessments at the end of a course. However, for most exams, questions should be designed so that your exam assesses multiple levels of cognitive learning.

To correctly answer a question that measures higher order thinking (synthesis, for example), students must reference their knowledge, process details, and put pieces of their knowledge together in order to make comparisons and judgments about a method or procedure. For example, the instructor could write a question that includes a case or scenario description as the first part of the question. The second part of the question would ask students to examine their knowledge in order to arrive at the correct answer. The question prompts might ask students, “ How could you determine…” or “How would you justify…” etc. Questions that measure higher order thinking may require charts and/or summaries of data in order to ask students to apply and synthesize information before answering the question.

Multiple choice questions that measure higher order thinking are not easy to write, but including them on exams will lead to a more comprehensive assessment of a student’s learning. When your exam assesses multiple levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, you can determine if students are reaching the highest level of cognitive processing.


About the Author

Sarah Zahl

Sarah B. Zahl, Ph.D., is the Director of Educational Assessment at the Marian University College of Osteopathic Medicine. Dr. Zahl earned her Ph.D. and M.S. in Higher Education from Indiana University and a B.S. degree in Journalism from Butler University. She has nine years of experience in academic and student affairs in higher education. In addition to her administrative roles, she has taught courses in Education, Qualitative and Quantitative Research Methods, and College Teaching and Learning. Dr. Zahl’s academic interests include competency based assessment, mapping the curriculum, and tracking student success factors during graduate study.

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