Three particularly useful strategies for
designing multiple-choice questions involve a
“context-dependent item,” that is, a question
that is accompanied by a visual or written
“context” that gives students something to
think about. Because students have the material
in front of them, their mental energy can be
devoted to thinking about that material, not
striving to retrieve it from memory.
Interpreting a Visual
When we give students a map, chart, photo, or
other visual and ask a question that requires
them to interpret it, we enable students to
demonstrate that they can apply content
knowledge and interpretive skills. Most students are familiar with this type of question,
which has been in use for a long time.
It is sometimes possible to extend the level
of thinking and design an item that requires
analysis or evaluation. For example, this series
of questions requires students to interpret a
bar graph showing growth trends for fertilized
and unfertilized plants (fig. 1, p. 38) at different cognitive levels:
1. What is the independent variable in this
A. Height of plants in cm
B. Time of measurement in weeks
C. Use of fertilizer [correct answer]
D. Amount of grass seed
2. The results in the graph support all of the fol-
lowing conclusions EXCEPT
A. Rye grass grows taller with fertilizer than
B. Rye grass has to have fertilizer to grow.
C. Rye grass grows at a steady rate whether it
is fertilized or not.
D. Rye grass grows faster with fertilizer than
3. What would be the most appropriate
experiment for Maria and Jorge to do next to
find out more about the effects of fertilizer on
A. Vary the amounts of fertilizer (high,
medium, low) to see whether there is an optimal
amount. [correct answer]
B. Vary the amount of water to see if water
makes fertilizer work better.
C. Vary the amount of sunlight to see whether
sunlight makes fertilizer work better.
D. Vary the kind of plant to see whether other
plants besides rye grass do better with fertilizer.
Question 1 is about interpreting the graphs:
Do students understand what the graph is
saying? Question 2 is about drawing a conclusion from the data in the graph: Can students practice inductive scientific reasoning?
Question 3 is about using the results of one
experiment to plan a follow-up experiment.
Whether these questions are the right
questions to ask depends on what you want
your students to know and what you want to
assess. The effectiveness of multiple-choice
questions—or any kind of questions—depends
on their relationship to what students are
trying to learn.
Interpreting a Text, Story, or Scenario
Reading tests have used passage-dependent
multiple-choice questions for a long time. You
can use the same format to assess application,
analysis, or evaluation skills in any content
area by creating a story or scenario related to
the content, akin to “word problems” in mathematics. You can use an actual text or write a
scenario of your own.
For example, if your class is studying the
Bill of Rights, you might write a little story
illustrating the use of free speech and then
ask a question that requires an inference. The
following question asks students to make an
inference about a speaker’s rhetorical intent:
Jefferson Davis made a speech to the Confed-
erate Congress in April 29, 1861. This excerpt
comes after Davis has reviewed several different
ways in which the North had promoted its own
economic, social, and political interests at the
expense of the South and has reviewed the prin-
ciple of state sovereignty regarding anything not
explicitly mentioned in the U.S. Constitution:
have advantages that
make them a useful
part of any teacher’s