Multiple choice questions for higher order thinking and active learning

Multiple choice questions (MCQs) or multiple response questions (MRQs) can be more than just knowledge recall questions. They can be used to analyse data or to access higher levels of learning. These pages cover how you can go about writing more complex questions that probe a deeper level of understanding, as well as offering a few examples.

Each topic below links to a more detailed page and further explanations:

  1. Higher order questioning with MCQs
  2. Using MCQs during teaching sessions
  3. Tips for writing good questions
  4. Resource list and biography

A key advantage of MCQs is that they are easy to mark. Online marking of them also gives the opportunity for instant feedback to the student and acts as a useful learning tool. However, this does take work as responses for both correct and incorrect answers are needed. Blackboard quizzes, as well as Google Forms, have the option of individual feedback based on the response selected, which can be presented as screencasts and videos. A well-designed MCQ assessment can cover a breadth of content and provide an objective measurement of ability.

One criticism of MCQs is that they only assess memory, knowledge and understanding. They can, however, be written to evaluate higher order thinking skills, such as the ability to apply, analyse and evaluate information. It is worth noting that, when used for summative assessment, the highest orders of thinking such as “creation” are out of the reach of MCQs as their answers are predetermined. With only a single or limited answer being possible, it is also impossible to demonstrate a breadth of understanding outside the scope of the question stem. So although they are useful, they should be thought of as part of a broader assessment strategy.

MCQs can be useful for the following objectives:

  • Recall of facts
  • Comprehension of text/graphics/data
  • Numerical skills
  • Deductive reasoning
  • Anything that leads to a right/wrong statement of fact
  • Prompted recall of the clearly stated arguments, point of view or opinions of the authors of key texts
  • Evaluation of the validity of logical arguments and conclusions based on evidence

#Thanks to Mel Green for all the help editing these pages and Danny Allwood for content ideas.