The quest for distractors: Getting the wrong answers right

I need distractors. And not because I am bored. No, I am looking for information on distractors in multiple choice questions.

The word distractors is used for the alternatives to the correct answer. So we are talking the baddies, the wrong ones. But how do I get those right?

Literature is certain about one thing in relation to distractors. And anyone who has ever developed a test with multiple choice questions will agree:

It is difficult to create good distractors.

Naturally, writing a good question (or item) is an art. But we get them right most of the time. However, creating good distractors – nice alternatives – is a real challenge.

Here’s some help.

An important condition for the answer alternatives is: All distractors must be likely. That is, all distractors should be a potential answer to the question.

But when you are not an expert in the subject matter then you will most likely see all of the response options as equally logical or probable.

The purpose of creating good distractors is distinguishing the good from the bad test takers. No doubt you want a good candidate to answer all of the questions correctly. And the candidate who has not studied hard enough will be thrown off balance by the answer alternatives. He will start guessing what the correct answer is and, eventually, he will fail the test (hopefully). Guessing is done when a candidate is unsure. And what this means is that the candidate will try and argue which answer fits the question.

Recommendations for creating great distractors:

  1. all distractors must be equally likely and grammatically and factually correct.
  2. all distractors must be of similar length and try to keep them brief. Provide relevant information in the question instead of in the answer alternatives.
  3. make use of counterexamples for creating distractors, do not use (double) negatives.
  4. all distractors must be written in the same style. If possible, avoid lingo and watch out for vague descriptions.
  5. use a limited number of distractors. Three answer alternatives are as good as four alternatives. In practice one out of four answer alternatives is rarely selected.

And on that last point: It is a best practice to analyse the performance of your items. Verify whether all of your answer alternatives were used by candidates. Have a look at this pie chart.


You can see that the alternative D is never selected. Alternative C is selected by two of the 201 candidates.

Conclusion: there is work to be done.

In any case, alternative D can be deleted.

Last but not least: Four-eyes principle

Remember always that the best way to make good questions and answers is the four-eye principle.

When you create a question with possible answers, you have to check the question by a colleague. Two see more than one.

Good luck with making good distractors.

Want to read more?

Writing good multiple choice test questions