The Effective Use of Negative Stems and “All of the Above” in Multiple-Choice Tests in College Courses

Michael Joseph Wise


Over the past few decades, test-writing experts have converged on a set of best-practice guidelines for constructing multiple-choice (MC) items. Despite broad acceptance, some guidelines are supported by scant or inconsistent empirical evidence. This study focused on two of the most-commonly violated of these guidelines: the use of negatively oriented stems (e.g., those using the qualifiers “not” or “except”) and the use of “all of the above” (AOTA) as a response option. Specifically, I analysed the psychometric qualities of 545 MC items from science courses that I taught at a liberal arts college. In this dataset, items with negatively oriented stems did not differ in difficulty or discriminability from questions with positively oriented stems. Similarly, items with AOTA as a response option did not differ in difficulty or discriminability from those without AOTA as an option. Items that used AOTA as a distractor were significantly more difficult, and slightly more discriminating, than were items that used AOTA as the key. Although they must be written with extra attention to detail, this study suggests that MC items with negative stems or AOTA as a response option can be effectively employed for assessment of content mastery in a classroom setting.

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