Open-ended Questions Focus the Class

Lilies wide open!

An open-ended question expands the students’ thinking and captures the class.  Use this type of question to-

Begin a lesson. It will focus the students’ thoughts on what you are about to teach.

Review the end of a lesson or a unit. You will find out what they know and don’t know before the test.

Identify ideas for assignments in: writing/science/research.


To begin, construct a question that has multiple answers and is related to the theme of the lesson or the unit. I highly recommend trying this question yourself. A question with two or four answers will not work!

For instance,

How many ways… [do animals move?]

What are all the… [adjectives for the word forest?]

What are the items… [ in a Conestoga wagon?]

What are the combinations of… [the elements…the colors…or the digits from 1 to 5?]

Which [African animals] can we research?

What do we know about [water]?


Put the question on the board, and let them begin! Record their answers on the board, to honor their ideas. Plus, it helps piggy back to new ideas. Keep it positive and upbeat. If an answer seems a little wrong, let it go – the goal is lots of answers! They will notice later that the answer didn’t work.

VIGNETTE.  I was practicing this teaching technique with another teacher’s class. They had finished studying the arctic, and the open-ended question was to help them review what they had learned.    I asked, “What would happen to a polar bear if the arctic temperature went up twenty degrees?”  Their basic answers were: “He would be hot. His hair would fall out. He would move away.” That was it!    I looked over to the teacher who immediately provided a better question: “What would happen to the arctic if the arctic temperature went up twenty degrees?”  The answers flew!  I couldn’t write their responses fast enough on the board.   The question had needed a larger theme.

VIGNETTE: As an introduction to WWII, the students were asked two general open-ended questions, “What causes people to get into arguments?” and “What happens when people argue?” After recording answers to the first question on the board, they were asked to discuss the second question with a partner. For homework, they were to interview anyone they knew who had fought in a war with the question, “How do disagreements escalate into wars?” [These were high school students.]

Participation: Keep it positive and upbeat. If an answer seems a little wrong, let it go – the goal is lots of answers. During the followup discussion, items can be dropped – with a smile of course.