Creating Multiple Choice Questions

Creating multiple choice questions for exams or quizzes takes a bit of practice. There is more to it than just listing 5 items to pick from to answer the question.

Multiple choice questions consist of three parts:

    • The stem: is the problem.       It can be stated as a question, or it can be sentence. It needs to be clearly written and contain only the information needed.
    • Distractors: are the wrong options. These should be meaningful and relate in some way to the question being posed.
    • The Answer: there should be only one correct answer to the question

In writing the question, it should be meaningful and relate to the course materials and learning outcomes. There should be a valid reason for asking the question.  Write the stem as a ‘negative’ only when you really have to, don’t do it just because and it’s a good idea to emphasize it: Which of the following is NOT a primary colour?  Try to write the stem so that there is no clue as to what the answer is, such as through the use of ‘a’ or ‘an’ in the stem.

The distractors and the answer have some common points to keep in mind. They should be about the same length, they should all relate to the question itself.  Distractors should be listed because they are common misconceptions of the right answer.   In selecting these items, there should be a valid reason they appear on the list of choices.  For example, “From the following list, select Canada’s current Prime Minister:
A) Justin Trudeau
B) Stephen Harper
C)Pierre Trudeau
D)Darth Vader”

Option D has no value to the question. Option A is, of course, correct, option B represents the previous Prime Minister and can be linked to knowing who is the current office holder, while Option C can be considered a distractor because he was the Prime Minister and has the same last name as the current holder.  Option D is allowing students a ‘gimmee’ and letting them have a 33 1/3% chance of guessing the right answer.

Using answers like “All of the above” or “none of the above” should be avoided.   They give an advantage to students who merely need to know 2 of the concepts listed in order to be able to determine that ‘all of the above’ is the correct response.

All exams at PACE use a strict exam protocol for delivery. Instructors should adopt this for quizzes as well: clear desk tops, phones away, no late entries, etc..  Even during reviews, don’t let students have phones out.   These steps help reduce academic misconduct.

In a similar fashion, having multiple versions of quizzes in use in a classroom helps reduce cheating. Moe the order of the questions, change the order of responses to produce a Version A, Version B, and even a Version C.  Hand them out so that no two versions are sitting beside each other.

If you want to know more about writing multiple choice questions, and excellent online resource is from the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching:


Copyright & Publisher’s Slides

Are you using publisher slide decks in your courses? Are you posting them on Nexus?  Have you ever checked the permission rights to do so?  You may be surprised to know that many publishers do NOT give permission for publisher created slide decks to be posted to a learning management system such as Nexus.

The recent federal court case against York University has highlighted the need for faculty, instructors, and university departments to actively engage in following copyright laws. This includes following the rules when using publisher supplied slides.

The best practice for those using these items is: DO NOT POST TO NEXUS.  Unless you know the explicit permissions of for the textbook you are referring to you run the risk of being in violation of the copyright laws.  Even when using a text book from previous course offerings, where the permission was granted, it may not be valid in a course offering for which you are no longer using that text book.

Additionally, the views of publishers around modifying or adding to the slides varies, causing another area where issues arise.

An audit of the materials posted on Nexus will be coming up shortly and there will be further communication on that topic. Going forward, instructors should ensure that you have reviewed the copyright permissions specific to the publisher and course before you post them to Nexus or reproduce them in paper.

Copyright and Instagram

The recent communication about changes in the copyright rules came to mind when I saw this article on reposting / using Instagram images:

If you use Instagram, it would be worth checking out the rules around using other people’s materials from there.

Be sure as well to check out the university’s message on copyright posted to Nexus.




From time to time, instructors ask the question does every student have to pass? At the core of answering this question is understanding PACE’s view on grades and the connection to our mission, and the relationship of PACE with the University.

PACE’s mission is to provide educational opportunities to our students that relate to the work place. Knowledge and skills learned in our classrooms are intended for use in the workplace.  By providing students with certificates and diplomas with the University’s logo, instructors are confirming to current and potential employers that students have achieved a standard within the courses and programs needed to meet the standards of the University’s Senate.

Employers are looking at those credentials as confirmation that a person has the ability to do certain jobs within the work place. Grades provide an indication to PACE that the student has those skills for granting credentials.  Students are looking at those grades as confirmation that they can represent their skills and knowledge to employers as being at an acceptable level.

Grades should be viewed then as a gauge that students can use in judging their skills and knowledge. Are they proficient at different skills to different levels? Is their knowledge of a subject adequate to meet the demands of a particular task or job function?  Are there areas for improvement?  Are there areas that are outstanding?

If you think of a sports team, whether hockey, football, volley ball or soccer, not every player will perform all the skills needed for that sport to the same level. Some players will be better at passing than others; some players may be better at catching a football, while others may excel at blocking.

If you praise a player for their catching ability when they can’t hold onto the ball, they will have false expectations of their abilities as they try out for positions. If they are selected on the basis of that praise, their new team will not be appreciative if the player can’t catch the ball.

Grades are similar. Giving unjustifiably high marks builds false expectations in students, and creates false expectations in employers.  Giving unjustifiably low grades can cause students to have low opinions of themselves, and cause employers to pass them over.

Clustering students into the top end of a grading scheme, or giving everyone a pass for a course, can also cause resentment between students. Students who have put large amounts of time and effort into producing quality work for a course may feel short changed by seeing peers who do little work receiving similar grades.

An established grading scheme for every method of evaluation on a course is critical to ensure that students are scored according to their knowledge and skills. Employers can then have confidence that students are presenting themselves with credible skills, which builds long term credibility for PACE courses.

In setting grades and designing rubrics, it is also important to keep in mind the expectations of the University itself around PACE courses. Many of our courses are articulated with courses in degree programs.  This means that taking the PACE course is considered the equivalent of a degree course, sometimes at the second or third year level.  Assessments and grades in these courses should be reflective of that recognition.

In short, no, not every student needs to pass a course. Nor does every student need to get an A+.  Grades should be reflective of the demonstrated knowledge and skills a student has shown to meet the method of evaluation for the course.