Open-ended tasks have more than one right answer, solution or outcome and can be completed in more than one way. They can take the form of statements, questions, tasks, projects or teaching methods. Different learners may use different types of thinking; and there are no predetermined correct outcomes. Open-ended learning activities are provocative and stimulate divergent thinking about a topic. Teachers’ attitudes, assessment criteria and procedures must also encourage students to take different paths and offer creative responses. Unique contributions are welcomed.
Maker and Scheiver identified these advantages of open questions. They:
- encourage many students to give responses
- encourage student-to-student interaction patterns
- elicit more complete and more complex responses
- allow students to give knowledgeable answers
- encourage students to question themselves, their classmates, and their teachers
- stimulate further thought and exploration
Open-ended activities work well in mixed-ability classrooms because they have “low floors” and “high ceilings.” This means they require minimal background knowledge and also have high or no limits on the knowledge and skill participants might use and learn.
This section provides a variety of examples and resources for developing open-ended learning experiences. It begins with samples of different sizes from a social studies unit on Asia. The first set is small questions, the second are larger activities, and the last is a project. Assessment criteria and procedures are provided for each.
Table 1. Open-ended questions and assessment criteria
|QUESTIONS||Criteria for teacher’s feedback|
|What impact do Asian countries have on our daily lives?||Fluency (number of ideas)
Scope of ideas (imports, immigration, culture, etc.)
|What impact does the United States have on the lives of people in Asian countries?||Same as above|
|In what ways do you think your life is different from (or the same as) the life of a boy or girl your age in Tokyo?||Scope (hobbies, transportation, recreation, religion, sports, etc.)
Table 2. Open-ended activity with assessment criteria
|ACTIVITY||Criteria for Evaluation and Who will apply them|
|Design a mini-poster about the 5 locations in Asia that you find most fascinating. Use rich, colorful language to describe each one in a sentence so others will share your fascination.||Richness of vocabulary: scored by teacher on a 5-point scale|
|Interest: scored by peers on a 5-point scale|
|Accuracy of names & locations: scored by teacher (right/wrong)|
Table 3. Open-ended project with assessment criteria
|PROJECT||Criteria for Evaluation and Who will apply them|
|Study of a Country:
Prepare a presentation and materials to recruit new immigrants to an Asian country of your choice. Include information on the culture, economy, history, population, climate, & geography, and more.
|Effectiveness: Plane tickets for peer evaluation (no way, one way and round-trip)|
|Originality: teacher judgment on a 5-point scale|
|Effort: self-evaluation on a 5- point scale|
Prompts for creating open-ended tasks:
The prompts below are a few examples of starting points for creating open-ended learning experiences of any size in any subject. Each can be completed with information relevant to a particular assignment. A more extensive collection of prompts is provided in Appendix D.
- How would ________ be different if ________ ?
- If you were a _________, how would you help (an inventor, a person in history or a character in a story or novel)?
- Create a _________ to promote __________.
- Give (some number) of reasons __________ might ___________.
- What makes ___________ (worthwhile, risky, scary, funny….)?
Open-endedness during classroom discussions
Despite a teacher’s best efforts to stimulate open, higher level thinking during teacher-led classroom discussions, students often respond to questions posed by teachers as if there is one right answer. There are alternatives to teacher’s questions. A teacher’s use of specific statements and silence as well as carefully constructed questions from peers are options. Dillon proposed 7 effective alternatives to direct questioning when the purpose of a discussion is to explore ideas and prompt higher level thinking: declarative statement, reflective restatement, declaration of perplexity, invitation to elaborate, class questions, speakers’ questions and deliberate silence. Students can learn to use these techniques too. Descriptions are provided in Appendix E. More details are provided in Dillon’s article.
Open-ended teaching methods
Problem-based learning and Socratic seminars are two instructional methods that provide students with open-ended learning experiences. Resources for problem-based learning can be found in the “Examples” and collection of resources provided for Inquiry-based learning.
Socratic Seminars are a form of whole class discussion “based on Socrates’ theory that it is more important to enable students to think for themselves than to merely fill their heads with “right” answers”. Prior to the seminar (discussion), students “examine” a text guided by prompts from the teacher. The “text” may be a novel, political cartoon, artwork, poem, etc. During the discussion, the teacher offers a few well-crafted, open-ended questions “that provoke students to think critically, analyze multiple meanings in text, and express ideas with clarity and confidence.” A follow-up activity enables students to synthesize what they’ve learned from their preparation and seminar experiences. Ball and Brewerprovide extensive resources in their materials and check the collection of resources for others available online and in print.