How Many Options Should a Multiple-choice Question Have? Maybe Just 3

Exactly how many options should a multiple-choice question have? The answer has varied over the years, but one meta-analysis suggests fewer than many of us currently use. As recently as 2002, researchers suggested we use “as many plausible distractors as feasible,” but that may mean just 3, according to Michael C. Rodriguez in “Three Options Are Optimal for Multiple-Choice Items: A Meta-Analysis of 80 Years.” 

Rodriguez writes, “I would support this advice by contributing the concern that in most cases, only three are feasible. Based on this synthesis, MC items should consist of three options, one correct option and two plausible distractors. Using more options does little to improve item and test score statistics and typically results in implausible distractors. The role of distractor deletion method makes the argument stronger. Beyond the evidence, practical arguments continue to be persuasive.

  1. Less time is needed to prepare two plausible distractors than three or four distractors.
  2. More 3-option items can be administered per unit of time than 4- or 5-option items, potentially improving content coverage.
  3. The inclusion of additional high quality items per unit of time should improve test score reliability, providing additional validity-related evidence regarding the consistency of scores and score meaningfulness and usability.
  4. More options result in exposing additional aspects of the domain to students, possibly increasing the provision of context clues to other questions (particularly if the additional distractors are plausible).”
We may not feel comfortable moving from 4 or 5 options to 3, but the message is clear, there’s no reason to spend valuable faculty time and energy on developing non-plausible distractors, and more than 5 options does NOT improve a question.

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