Effective Uses of Open-Ended Questions

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In large-scale testing programs, the information that open-ended questions provide justifies their use, despite the expense and time involved in scoring them. Unlike short-answer or multiple-choice questions, tasks that require students to construct their own responses open a window to students' thinking and understanding. Such tasks become vehicles for communicating actual achievement to parents, teachers, the public, and the students themselves.

However, despite this obvious benefit, the most effective use of open-ended questions is in the classroom. Here, they model for students the kinds of thinking that we want to encourage. Further, open-ended questions give teachers the information they need to improve their own effectiveness.

In developing their own open-ended questions, we offer teachers some general guidelines:

o Stress communication. Continually ask students to explain and to expand on their ideas, both in discussion and in written form. Let language become a vehicle for thought. Often, it is only through language that we clarify our thinking.

o Have students apply their skills in practical contexts. Set problems in the context of current affairs or the immediacy of everyday decisions. That will motivate students, and you will help them realize the relevancy of their school learning and encourage them to begin transferring that knowledge to different contexts.

o Evaluate frequently. Testing encourages learning in at least two ways: It promotes review and consolidation, and it highlights what is valuable to learn. Frequent testing also gives the teacher important information: It helps focus instruction, and it provides evidence of students' understanding. To make valid and reliable judgments about levels of student attainment, we must use many different kinds of evidence in a range of contexts.
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