The History of Multiple Choice Questions

Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs) are a ubiquitous tool in modern education, used to assess knowledge and understanding in a wide range of subjects. But how did this popular assessment format come into existence? In this blog post, we will explore the history of MCQs, from their origins to their evolution into a standard testing method.

Early Beginnings

The concept of using standardized tests to measure knowledge dates back to ancient China, where the imperial examinations were used to select candidates for civil service positions. These exams, however, were essay-based rather than multiple choice.

The Birth of MCQs

The modern MCQ format was pioneered in the early 20th century. One of the key figures in the development of MCQs was Frederick J. Kelly, an American educator and psychologist. In 1914, Kelly developed the Kansas Silent Reading Test, one of the first standardized tests to use multiple choice questions. His goal was to create a more efficient and objective method of assessing students’ reading abilities.

Development and Adoption

1920s: Early Adoption

In the 1920s, MCQs began to gain popularity in the United States, particularly in the field of psychology and education. E.L. Thorndike, a prominent educational psychologist, advocated for the use of MCQs in educational testing. He believed that this format could provide more reliable and objective assessments compared to essay-based exams.

1930s-1940s: Expansion and Standardization

During the 1930s and 1940s, the use of MCQs expanded significantly. The development of standardized tests like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) relied heavily on MCQs. These tests aimed to provide a uniform measure of academic ability and potential, making college admissions and graduate school selections more objective.

Post-World War II: Technological Advances

After World War II, advancements in technology further propelled the adoption of MCQs. The introduction of optical mark recognition (OMR) technology allowed for the automated grading of answer sheets. This innovation made it possible to administer and grade large-scale standardized tests quickly and accurately.

Modern Use and Evolution

Widespread Use in Education

Today, MCQs are a staple in educational assessments worldwide. They are used in primary and secondary education, higher education, and professional certification exams. The format’s versatility and efficiency make it ideal for testing a wide range of subjects and skills.

Online Learning and Adaptive Testing

With the advent of online learning platforms and digital education tools, MCQs have evolved further. Online assessments often use MCQs due to their ease of implementation and instant feedback capabilities. Additionally, adaptive testing methods, which adjust the difficulty of questions based on the test-taker’s performance, frequently employ MCQs to provide a personalized assessment experience.

Research and Improvements

Ongoing research in educational psychology and assessment continues to refine MCQs. Efforts are being made to improve the design of distractors (incorrect answer choices) and ensure that questions accurately measure the intended knowledge or skills. Innovations like scenario-based MCQs and multimedia-enhanced questions are also being explored to make assessments more engaging and comprehensive.


The history of Multiple Choice Questions is a testament to the evolution of educational assessment methods. From their early beginnings in the 20th century to their widespread use in modern education, MCQs have proven to be an efficient, objective, and versatile tool for measuring knowledge and skills. As technology and educational research continue to advance, MCQs will likely remain a crucial component of effective assessment strategies.

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