Using multiple-choice questions

A few years ago I would have completely rejected the idea that multiple-choice questions were in any way useful in history lessons, and I still have reservations. I have always been happy to use quick factual recall quizzes – though I must admit I tended to use these more with GCSE and A-Level classes than lower down the school – but I always thought that multiple choice just did not work for history. I have shifted my opinion on this somewhat in the last few years and I want to explain why.

It is important, I think, to make a distinction between two kinds of multiple-choice question that you can use in history lessons. On the one hand there are those questions which are essentially slightly easier versions of straight factual-recall questions. A key date for pupils to remember when studying the unification of Germany is the Austro-Prussian War. Usually I would just ask, as a part of a quiz, ‘What year was the Austro-Prussian War?’ It would be possible to turn this into a multiple-choice question along the lines of

A. In what year was the Austro-Prussian War?

  1. 1863
  2. 1864
  3. 1865
  4. 1866

Doing it this way is of course a bit easier than just asking for straight recall (you are more likely to guess correctly, even if you added more options). It also takes a bit longer to write the questions (or read them out) as you have to provide the different options. I have never really had a problem with questions such as this as they are just a variation on factual recall, but I tended not to use them as they required more effort for little gain. Quizzing was always more straight-forwards.

Where I thought multiple choice was of no use, however, was in assessing any historical knowledge more complex than simple factual recall. Some things in history are either right or wrong (such as dates, names, sequences of events, points on a charter and so on): the rest is a matter of interpretation. My reasoning would go something like “well, I can do quizzing for factual recall, and for everything else I need essays and other extended answers – therefore multiple choice is redundant”.

Let me be clear here: I still see the essay as the ultimate form of assessment in history. I have not the time here to go into all the reasons for why essays are so important but suffice it to say that I get pupils writing essays from the moment they arrive in secondary school.

I have, however, been increasingly persuaded of the value of multiple-choice questions for more complex historical questions. I would recommend at this point having a look at Daisy Christodoulou’s post on multiple choice which uses an example of a history question from British Columbia. The question is:

B. How did the Soviet totalitarian system under Stalin differ from that of Hitler and Mussolini?

  1. It built up armed forces.
  2. It took away human rights.
  3. It made trade unions illegal.
  4. It abolished private land ownership.

When I first saw this question my historical soul wretched a little. I still do not think it is a particularly good example of a multiple-choice question. 4 is the expected answer, but the question is weak because it does not provide any chronological boundaries. Private land ownership was permitted (as I understand it) under the New Economic Policy, and it was not until collectivisation set in after 1928 that private land ownership was abolished. Similarly, 2 is complex because it is not clear what ‘human rights’ are meant, and certainly a wide range of rights were limited in Russia even before the 1917 revolutions. Getting picky, it is debatable whether Mussolini’s state was totalitarian at all (I think Hannah Arendt called it authoritarian rather than totalitarian). Writing good multiple choice questions in history is hard, and I suspect there are very few questions which might not be able to be criticised on some level.

Despite these problems, I do however recognise that one of the main limitations of more traditional forms of assessment in history (e.g. essays) is that it is difficult to assess breadth of knowledge. In a previous post I argued that we ought in history not just to be assessing things recently studied, but rather all of the history that pupils had studied thus far. Multiple choice would seem to be one way of achieving this.

So I have had a go at drafting some multiple choice questions in history. I have tried these out now on a number of history teachers, many of whom have helped to strengthen the questions. Writing good multiple choice questions (just like writing good essay questions) is hard, and I do not doubt for a moment that some of the following examples still contain problems – please do put comments at the end to help me tighten these up further.

Even better, however, would be for you to add some of your own multiple choice questions, or to email these on to me. Although a little snowed under at the moment, I would quite like at some point this year to start collecting a ‘bank’ of decent multiple choice questions which could be made available to history teachers. Let me know if you’d like to contribute!

So, here we go. Some example multiple choice questions. Do let me know what you think.

C. In the years after the Black Death

  1. peasants were given the right to vote for who they wanted to be king of England.
  2. most peasants stopped believing in God because praying had failed to stop people dying.
  3. many peasants began to demand higher wages for their work.
  4. peasants had less work to do as there were fewer people alive who needed to be fed.

D. Magna Carta was produced in order to

  1. give the king greater powers over the lords in England.
  2. make England a more democratic country.
  3. create a Parliament that would help the King to rule England.
  4. force the king to obey the law.

E. During the Renaissance

  1. the use of the printing press allowed ideas to spread around Europe more quickly.
  2. new inventions like the steam engine made it possible to travel around Europe more easily.
  3. doctors identified that diseases such as the Black Death were caused by bacteria, allowing them to begin working on cures.
  4. kings and queens became less powerful in Europe as they handed control over to Parliaments.

F. In the Industrial Revolution

  1. rural workers moved to work in factories in cities where the working conditions were generally better than in the countryside.
  2. all rural workers supported the introduction of machinery as this made their lives easier.
  3. electric lighting made it easier for people to work in factories late into the evening.
  4. railways made it possible to move around England more easily allowing people from the countryside to do work in cities.


Follow Up

I am grateful to Nick Dennis (@nickdennis) for pointing me towards the AP United States History Practice Exam which contains numerous examples of multiple-choice questions in history.

8 Comments on Using multiple-choice questions

  1. Tom Burkard // 12 February 2015 at 18:57 // Reply

    The only policy paper I ever wrote that had zero impact (or perhaps negative impact) was

    Admittedly, this was advocating the use of multiple-choice questions for high-stakes testing. With Computer Adaptive Testing, there is an even better argument for using them in this role, as is done in Denmark. However, I also believe they are extremely useful for formative assessment. In STEM subjects, good mulitiple-choice questions can test problem-solving skills. Clearly, in the humanities one needs additional means of assessment, but the British prejudice against multiple-choice questions quite frankly puzzles me. It is possible to design some pretty brain-dead multiple choice tests, but this is true no matter what the format.

    By the way, I appreciated your last question–it echoes “Liberty’s Dawn” by Emma Griffin, one of the more enlightening histories I’ve read in the last year or so.

  2. // 12 February 2015 at 19:59 // Reply

    Hi, Really thought-provoking post – many thanks.  I would advocate that the use of multiple-choice questions works better when you use them as decision-making activities to take students back to an historical event where there were lots of choices that could have been made and each one could have had impact on the next choice. One I’ve used is with one group of students as Lord Howard/Francis Drake and simultaneously, the other group as Medina Sidonia in 1588 and asked them to decide which choice from 3 they would have made at each stage of the Armada’s attempted invasion and associated actions. The fourth choice is blank – their own.  This is not a crude attempt at a lazy empathy exercise – but makes them easily see where things went wrong for the Armada with greatest effect and up until which stage English defeat was still possible.  Surely this is crucial in causation work – students can therefore argue with greater certainty which cause was more significant and can see the major turning points more clearly due to the choices they made. If they feel they’ve almost ‘been there’ their knowledge and recall remains far better too.

    This is more powerful if you get students working in teams to agree on their decisions and having to write for each one why they’ve chosen it.  It is interesting afterwards when they compare their choices with the actual decisions that were made in 1588 and they realise they can easily turn the two sheets of these decisions into a well-structured essay that argues a theory straight away as to whether the Armada was defeated due to English strengths/ correct decisions or Spanish weaknesses/ mistakes – a conclusion is easily produced where they themselves produce a tally of how many wrong decisions the Spanish made, compared with right choices (and luck) of the English. This means then that hopefully, decision-making as a multiple-choice activty is a part of constructing well-written essays. Regards,Kevin NewmanAll-Inclusive HistoryT: 07504 863867All Inclusive History | Just another WordPress site

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  3. I see the potential benefits here, but even a cursory look at the “progressive” solution to assessment devised by the Stanford History Education Group (Beyond the Bubble), puts me off the idea of multiple choice for the most part. Seems that complex issues get reduced too far and even in recall, Brown et al. suggest it is probably less effective than free recall. I think it probably does have a place. How big a place is certainly debatable

  4. Michael Fordham // 13 February 2015 at 06:43 // Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  5. One factor which may have some bearing in this is the existence of interactive voting pads or clickers. The HA looked at the potential use of these in a project which reported in 2010, ironically entitles ‘Beyond Multiple choice’. It may look a bit creaky now but there are some interesting points about the technology and the wider issue of the pedagogy of asking questions in history. Many of them echo the ideas expressed in some of the comments above. The link is

  6. I ditched multiple choice questions this year in my non-AP classes. This was actually a bit of coming home for me, as I returned to the ways I learned how to test when a grad assistant in the 1990s. The spark to do so came from reading Dan Willingham’s book, Why Students Don’t Like School. The gist of Willingham’s argument on tests is that MC-based ones are more about using short term memory than anything else. The testing format I moved back to is to give students a study guide about a week ahead of the scheduled test, which is made up of short identifications and essay questions. On the test day, I put about half of the IDs and essay questions on the test. I’ve found that student retention of the information is better than “guess what I will ask with MC questions” and it certainly makes my parent-teacher nights easier.

  7. Ray Karras wrote a few very interesting articles on writing MCQs for the history classroom as early as 1978 if not before. Here’s a link to one of his,,Testing.pdf

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