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Why are open-ended questions important?

MONDAY, JUNE 29, 2015 10:24 AM

In the classroom, at every grade level, there are two basic forms of questions that teachers ask: closed and open-ended. Closed questions typically have a single correct answer and begin with traditional question words (such as who, what, when and where). Who is the main character? What prompted him or her to do what he or she did? Open-ended questions, on the other hand, don't have a single right answer. Instead, they're meant to encourage students to start a discussion or think creatively. But why are these so important in the classroom? Here's how open-ended questions can benefit students:

The power of open-ended questions
Beginning in kindergarten, the Common Core asks students to start developing critical-thinking skills. In fact, critical thinking is one of the main focuses of the Standards as a whole, and students are encouraged to use it in every subject, from math to English/language arts to history. Open-ended questions are an amazing way to introduce critical thought, even in earlier grades. Consider this scenario: Students are going to begin reading a story. Instead of getting started right away, the teacher first asks them to look at the front cover. She or he asks them to make some guesses about the story based on the title, illustrations and any other information they can find on the front or back of the book. These open-ended questions allow students to analyze the content, make guesses based on vocabulary on the cover and discuss the reasoning behind their thoughts. In short, before even cracking open the book, they've already thought critically and analytically. 

What skills can open-ended questions teach?
Critical thinking isn't the only skill that can be developed through the use of open-ended questions. For one thing, because open-ended questions typically require more than a one-word response, students develop their language and vocabulary skills. These can be improved upon even more when teachers ask follow-up questions. Students also learn to think creatively and solve problems by themselves. Closed questions force students to think about what they believe the teacher wants to hear. But open-ended questions allow them to consider their own ideas, thoughts and feelings. They also encourage collaborative work and respect, especially when the open-ended questions are part of a whole-group discussion. Students can build on (or even disagree with) their peers' ideas, allowing them to learn how to work together.

Open-ended questions are truly an effective learning tool, and can help students develop skills while they learn subject matter in an interesting and engaging way.