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Anatomy of A Multiple Choice Question

by S. Merritt on September 5, 2009

Multiple choice test anxiety and confusion starts earlier than you might think. The entire language surrounding MCQ’s is more complicated than it needs to be. To start improving your test performance, you need to start with simplifying the multiple choice language.

Multiple choice tests have their own fancy jargon.  The question itself is called the stem.  The various options available to choose from are called foils.  The correct foil is the key, and all the incorrect ones are called distractors.  Finally, the whole package of stem and foils together is called an item.  Here’s an example:

Multiple choice tests can be:
a) Easier than essay-type exams because they often emphasize general information
b) Harder than essay-type exams because the time pressures are greater
c) Easier or harder depending on the student and test developer
d) All of the above

For our purposes here on Mastering Multiple Choice, we’ll avoid the term “foils” and use “options” instead, and call the “stem” a “question.” In the sample above, the responses a-d are the options, and the bold first line is the question. What could be easier?

And the answer (which is a better word for “key”) to this question, is d)…

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