What, Why and Art of MCQs

MCQ Blog

Why We Love MCQs

Our first contact with MCQs was at O-Levels nearly 40 years ago in the sciences.  Like many adolescents, we treated this as the easy option compared to the long-form questions.  You would knock off the distractors, choose the right answer from the alternatives and move onto the next question.  If in doubt, you could guess the answer on the statistically false assumption that it would improve your chances.  You would then go on from this perceived loss-leader in your paper and move on to the meaty questions where you could waffle through your answers, display your higher-order reasoning skills and impress the examiner with what you really knew about the subject.  Did our disdain for MCQs at this point in time really prove we had not put in the effort to acquire the basic knowledge of a subject, and we would be found out through the examination process?  The answer was probably yes. We had not done the real work and we knew it.  The MCQs had proved, even at this stage in our educational journey, to be an efficient predictor of our overall performance.  Lesson learned for our Economics A-level two years later, when we took the MCQ paper (1983 A Level Economics 9633-1 QP copy) seriously with its 50 questions covering all the topics in the syllabus – on the way to getting our A-grade in the subject.

As an undergraduate, we had the opportunity in 1985 to take part in a research study for the Institute of Chartered Accountants undertaken by the University of Essex’s Economics Department.  The work which was eventually published in the British Accounting Review and based on a nationwide survey of training offices in firms of accountants in England and Wales had profound implications at the time for accounting courses at universities and the future exam structure of the Institute’s exams.  An MCQ section was now introduced for all subjects at the three levels of examination required to qualify as a Chartered Accountant.  As one of the first cohorts to go through the new syllabus, we knew this was not an easy option but a thorough examination of one’s knowledge and mastery of each and every topic.  If you failed the MCQ portion of a paper, you failed overall.  We did not as we heard on a podcast “practise 10,000 multiple choice questions to pass the Californian Bar Exam”, but we do know that that knowledge that was tested then through MCQs, is still ingrained in us now.

MCQs has its challenges and criticisms as an effective form of objective assessment of educational progress but their educational pedigree is long, having been developed by E L Thorndike’s assistant Benjamin D Wood in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s, alongside the innovation of computing by IBM during the same period.  Wood thought MCQ was a more accurate or scientific way of ascertaining the ability of a teacher to teach, and fairer way of testing what a pupil knew than just answering a specific question.

There is much skill in constructing good MCT items, which are both pedagogically sound and test the student fairly on the knowledge that they have acquired.  This process should never be seen by anyone as the easy option.  As was observed in one study which showed the higher predictive power of MCT of overall educational performance by students compared to other tests “Business schools, in particular, have an obligation to prepare students for careers, not simply theoretical knowledge. A huge number of career choices after graduation still require an extensive and complex MCT to gain entry.”  Indeed we note that the KS2 SATs which at their heart is constructed as an MCT, are being used today in secondary schools in Stafford as efficient predictors of GCSE results across all subjects five years after they were taken, with less than a 1% error rate.  This might seem as another form of using summative assessment data for purposes other than it was first intended, but clearly, these MCTs are known to be effective in predicting the future educational performance of 11-year-olds we could be teaching soon.

How to answer an MCQ

An article from studyright.net – “How to answer multiple choice questions like a pro” gives the following advice (summary):

Use this 4 step process to answer any multiple choice question like you’re getting paid to do it.

  1. Know what each multiple choice question is asking. …
  2. Evaluate each answer to the multiple choice question. …
  3. Eliminate each clearly wrong answer. …
  4. If all else fails, guess like a street magician!

Another article from Businessinsider.com – “4 ways to outsmart any multiple-choice test” suggests the following in summary:

Ideally, multiple-choice exams would be random, without patterns of right or wrong answers. However, all tests are written by humans, and human nature makes it impossible for any test to be truly random.

  1. Ignore conventional wisdom
  2. Look at the surrounding answers
  3. Choose the longest answers
  4. Eliminate the outliers

The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants gives some great advice in their article on their website (HOW TO ANSWER MULTIPLE-CHOICE QUESTIONS) and which is also available as a pdf, as follows is a very short summary of some very detailed advice with worked examples:

Answering multiple-choice questions (MCQs) successfully requires you to develop a range of skills and exam techniques. Taking a few simple steps will help you to maximise your marks in these papers.

From this discussion, you can see that MCQs are not an easy option. Maximising your marks when attempting MCQs requires:

  • sound preparation
  • studying across the syllabus
  • practising as many different types of question as possible
  • developing your own strategy for different types of question
  • thinking clearly in the exam
  • working out your answers
  • structuring your approach to the paper
  • answering all the questions.

Taking this approach does not make answering MCQs easy, but it should mean that you obtain the marks you deserve.


The exam board OCR has a very detailed pdf about answering questions for its A-level Economics exam – A Level Economics – Guidance on answering multiple choice questions which is inserted here in full (OCR 314739-guidance-on-answering-multiple-choice-questions) which has the wise words all students should consider:

Although MCQs can be tricky, they also offer some advantages. The most obvious one, perhaps, is that you have the answer before your eyes. You just need to recognise it. You don’t need to write lengthy and elaborate answers to show your understanding of the subject matter. MCQ tests usually contain a large number of questions, and although this means a broader range of revision, it also means each question is worth less overall, so one wrong answer does not lower your mark too much.

Why Use MCQs In Education

Below are a series of links to articles (which we will update from time to time) on the benefits of using MCQs in your classroom and education setting.

As Starters


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