More Idle Musing on Recent Writing Work

I‘ve noted, I think, that a fair bit of the freelance work I do involves putting together reading guides and associated lesson plans and instructional materials. I’ve continued to do so, of course, and I’ve worked to do more of it since the shift to full-time self-employment. I’ve commented that, as part of such work, I write a lot of multiple-choice questions. I know there are problems with them, of course; such questions, at best, work in the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, and they more often assess ability to handle multiple-choice questions than to check content knowledge. And I’ve got more experience with them than many, as I’ve commented before; I know, and quite well, some of the ways in which (over-) reliance on such assessment methods can affect students in and after their time in the classroom.

Yes, this kind of thing.
Photo by Andy Barbour on

That said, the work pays, and I need money; I’ve got bills to pay, and not all of my debts are on payment moratoria (#CancelStudentDebt). So I do what I can to use the skills I developed through teaching and practice, and I write multiple choice questions. Because I do as many of them as I do–180 or more at a crack–I’ve worked out ways to make writing them easier on myself; I’ve had to, really, and I don’t think I can be blamed for finding ways to work smarter. The adage, the old wisdom, demands doing such things, doesn’t it?

How I draft multiple-choice questions depends on the content I’m dealing with at the time, namely in terms of whether the question is a stand-alone question or one in a series of related questions. In the former case–something like “Which of the following is the protagonist’s preferred flower?”–I’ll have the correct response and one distractor ready; I’ve noted that one of the distractors, the “wrong” answers, is usually something like a joke or reference I make to amuse myself, and I often pull such references from my own experience, bringing in something from life in the Texas Hill Country. For the example above, the correct answer might be a rose; I’ll include it, of course, and will add a bluebonnet as a distractor, the state flower of Texas being ready to mind.

Most of the time, I have two more answers to develop; I usually get asked to produce a question and a four-response slate, so having two answers ready to go means I have two more I have to write. And those should both look like they could be correct; they have to fit, thematically, with the correct response. When I draft them, I look at word-count, at register, and at language-fit. That is, the distractors should have more or less the same number of words as the correct response, they should be at more or less the same level of formality / politeness as the correct response, and they should look like they come from the same language and background as the correct response. For the above question–“Which of the following is the protagonist’s preferred flower?” “A rose.”–I would need a one-word flower name (easy enough to do, although it excludes such things as “forget-me-not” or “corpse flower”), and I’d need one that’s a relatively simple name for both register and language-fit (so nothing like “delphinium” or “nanohana”). “A violet” or “A lily” would work, really, as might several others. “A tulip,” perhaps.

In the case of questions in a series–something like “Which of the following is Arthur called?” and “Which of the following is Brynhild called?”–I’ll have three (or more) answers already ready. The correct response and the joke are already in place, as noted above. The thing is, if I have a series of questions of similar type, I can use the correct answer to one as a distractor in another. That is, I can use what Brynhild is called as a distractor in for the question of what Arthur is called, and vice-versa. My own experience taking tests suggests that it will often be the case that repeated answers will be regarded as incorrect by those who are responding to the test-as-test, rather than knowing the content. In such thinking, the right answer has to change, so the answers that don’t change have to be wrong. In effect, using such question-series reduce testees’ ability to game the test, and it reduces my question-writing time, as I only need rearrange the order of responses and change one or two words in the question, itself.

As might be imagined, I write a fair number of questions in series. But I can’t always get away with it, so I make sure I can write many of the others, as well. So far, it’s seemed to work well enough.

Could you use some help putting together tests or lesson plans? Let me know; I can help!


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