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Multiple-Choice Questions with Related Distractors: A Viable Alternative to Open-Ended Questions in Vocabulary Learning

In a world where knowledge is the key to success, the process of studying remains a fascinating and crucial subject. Everyone has at some point embarked on learning a new language, whether it was for a German exam at school or an intensive French course leading up to an upcoming vacation. Many individuals regularly question how the learning process can be optimized to attain the most efficient outcomes. 

In our research, we have discovered a learning method that appears to be as effective as using open-ended questions when studying. This method utilizes multiple-choice questions with distractors that are semantically and orthographically related to the correct answer. In this blog, we will discuss the findings of our research and highlight the potential of this learning method. The aim of our study was to find an effective online learning method for studying vocabulary in a second language. We were specifically interested in the possibilities and efficiency of multiple-choice questions as a learning tool, primarily due to the advantages they offer, such as time efficiency and reduced effort by eliminating the need for typing.

The challenge of using multiple-choice questions

Generally, multiple-choice questions are not recommended as a learning tool b

ecause they primarily rely on recognition rather than the actual retrieval of information. It is often suggested that mere recognition does not provide maximal learning potential. Actively retrieving stored information, also known as retrieval, is considered essential for effective learning. This is often achieved through open-ended questions, where the learner has to formulate the correct answer themselves. Nonetheless, we were curious whether multiple-choice questions could be developed in such a way that they would yield comparable learning outcomes to open-ended questions. Previous studies suggested that the use of related distractors could increase the difficulty level of the learning process while improving learning outcomes. For instance, a study conducted by Little and Bjork (2015) demonstrated that learning with related distractors resulted in lower accuracy scores during the learning phase but higher accuracy scores on the final test. Along with the time efficiency and low required effort of the multiple-choice learning system, this highlights the advantages of implementing this learning method.

Research method and results

We conducted a study with 60 first-year psychology students who had to learn French vocabulary. The participants were divided into three different learning methods. In all three conditions, the participants learned the same words in two learning blocks, with only the learning method varying (see figure). In the first learning condition, the participants practiced with multiple-choice questions using unrelated distractors in both the first and second learning blocks. This method served as a baseline, where minimal learning progress was expected. In the second condition, the participants practiced with multiple-choice questions where the distractors were unrelated to the correct answer in the first learning block. In the second learning block of this condition, open-ended questions were used, requiring the participants to type the correct translation of the words. This method is typically considered the most effective for learning new material. In the third condition, the participants practiced with multiple-choice questions where the distractors in the first learning block were related in meaning, followed by a learning block with distractors related in word form. With this method, we attempted to achieve a similar outcome to studying with open-ended questions but using a multiple-choice format. Certain studies have shown that studying word form/spelling is more effective when the meaning of the word is clear. Oulette and Fraser (2009) support that children were better able to study word forms/spelling after the meaning of the vocabulary was clarified. Hence, we opted for a transition in distractors related in meaning to distractors related in word form. At the end of the learning period, each participant completed an open-ended test where Dutch words had to be translated into French.

Note. This figure presents example trials for the two learning blocks in (1) the unrelated learning method, (2) the open-ended learning method, (3) the related learning method; the distractors in the first learning block all belong to the same category: weather conditions. The words are presented in Dutch and French, the translation of ‘de hagel’ (NL) and ‘la grêle’(F) is ‘the hail’ (EN).

Our results revealed that both the learning method with related distractors and the learning method with open-ended questions led to higher scores on the final tests compared to the learning method that exclusively used unrelated distractors. Interestingly, the results of the learning method with related multiple-choice distractors and the learning method with open-ended questions were nearly identical in terms of accuracy on the post-test. These promising findings suggest that multiple-choice questions with related distractors can be an attractive alternative to open-ended questions. Children and students often prefer studying with multiple-choice questions because they perceive it as less demanding. This can be supported by the fact that accuracy scores were higher during learning with related distractors compared to accuracy scores during learning with open-ended questions, which can have a motivational effect. Therefore, the use of multiple-choice questions with related distractors may have a reinforcing effect on studying when this method is implemented in online learning modules for students.

Mean accuracy scores on the post-test for each condition

However, we need to be careful with drawing conclusions. Since the final test was administered immediately after the learning phase, we do not have insights into the differences that may arise in the long term. Furthermore, we conducted a measurement of judgment of learning; we asked the participants to estimate their accuracy score on the final test immediately after learning. This estimation proved to be much more accurate for the students who had learned with open-ended questions. This is a beneficial outcome of the active retrieval involved in answering open-ended questions. Additionally, we need to be aware that this method is not applicable to all learning objectives. The use of word form-related distractors has proven to be useful for learning a new language. On the other hand, learning anatomy with a multiple-choice format would most likely only benefit from the use of semantic related distractors. This indicates that we cannot universally implement this method in all multiple-choice learning systems.


Our research has demonstrated that the use of multiple-choice questions with related distractors is a promising learning method for studying vocabulary in a second language. This method has yielded comparable learning outcomes to studying with open-ended questions. Since multiple-choice questions are often preferred by children and students due to the reduced effort required, implementing this new approach with related distractors in online learning modules can have a positive impact on studying. This opens up possibilities for improving the learning experience and results of students in online learning environments.

Baxter, P., Droop, M., Van Den Hurk, M., Bekkering, H., Dijkstra, T., & Leoné, F. (2021). Contrasting Similar Words Facilitates Second Language Vocabulary Learning in Children by Sharpening Lexical Representations. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 688160.

Little, J. L., & Bjork, E. L. (2015). Optimizing multiple-choice tests as tools for learning. Memory & Cognition, 43(1), 14–26.

Ouellette, G., & Fraser, J. R. (2009). What exactly is a yait anyway: The role of semantics in orthographic learning. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 104(2), 239–251.

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