Open-ended questions are inquiries that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” and require elaboration.
These questions encourage respondents to provide more detailed answers, express opinions, and share experiences.
They can be useful in multiple contexts:
- In conversation, it elicits more information about someone and can help break the ice or deepen your relationship with them.
- In education, open-ended questions are used as prompts to encourage people to express themselves, demonstrate their knowledge, or think more deeply about other people.
- In research, they are used to gather detailed responses from research participants who, if not asked open-ended questions, may not give valuable detailed or in-depth responses.
An example of an open-ended question is:
“What did you enjoy most about your recent vacation?”
Open-Ended Questions Examples
Examples of Open-Ended Questions for Students
- What did you find most interesting or surprising about today’s lesson?
- How would you explain this concept to someone who has never encountered it before?
- Can you think of a real-life example of what we are talking about today?
- When doing the task, what did you find most challenging and why?
- How does this topic connect to the topic we were discussing in last week’s lesson?
- When you walk out of this lesson today, what is the most important insight you’ll take with you?
- When you were solving this problem, what strategies did you draw upon? Can you show them to me?
- If you could change one thing about how you did today’s task, what would it be and why?
- How do you feel about the progress you have made in the unit so far, and what areas do you think you need to work on?
- What questions do you still have about this topic that we can address in our next lesson?
- How do you think this subject will be relevant to your life outside of the classroom, such as on the weekends or even in the workplace once you leave school?
- We tried just one way to solve this problem. Can you think of any alternative approaches we could have taken to reach the same results?
- What resources or strategies do you think were most useful when solving this problem?
- What were the challenges you faced when completing this group work task and how would you work to resolve them next time?
- What are some of the possible weaknesses of the theory we’ve been exploring today?
- How has your understanding of this topic evolved throughout the course of this unit?
- What are some real-world applications of what we’ve learned today?
- If you were to design an experiment to test this hypothesis, what would be your approach?
- Can you think of any counterarguments or alternative perspectives on this issue?
- How would you rate your level of engagement with this topic, and what factors have influenced your level of interest?
Examples of Open-Ended Questions for Getting to Know People
- So, can you tell me about the first time you met our mutual friend who introduced us?
- How did you get interested in your favorite hobby?
- How have your tastes in music changed over time?
- Can you explain a memorable memory from your childhood?
- Are there any books, movies, or TV shows that you’ve enjoyed recently that you could recommend? Why would you recommend them to me?
- How do you usually spend your weekends or leisure time?
- Can you tell me about a restaurant experience you had that you really enjoyed and why it was so memorable?
- What’s your fondest memory of your childhood pet?
- What first got you interested in your chosen career?
- If you could learn a new skill or take up a new hobby, what would it be and why?
- What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received from a parent or mentor?
- If you were to pass on one piece of advice to your younger self, what would lit be?
- Tell me about something fun you did in the area recently that you could recommend that I do this weekend on a budget of $100?
- If you could have a think for a second, would you be able to tell me your short-term, medium-term, and long-term personal goals?
- If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
Examples of Open-Ended Questions for Interviews
- Can you tell me about yourself and your background, and how you came to be in your current position/field?
- How do you approach problem-solving, and what methods have you found to be most effective?
- Can you describe a particularly challenging situation you faced, and how you were able to navigate it?
- What do you consider to be your greatest strengths, and how have these played a role in your career or personal life?
- Can you describe a moment of personal growth or transformation, and what led to this change?
- What are some of your passions and interests outside of work, and how do these inform or influence your professional life?
- Can you tell me about a time when you faced criticism or negative feedback, and how you were able to respond to it?
- What do you think are some of the most important qualities for success in your field, and how have you worked to develop these qualities in yourself?
- Can you describe a moment of failure or setback, and what you learned from this experience?
- Looking to the future, what are some of your goals or aspirations, and how do you plan to work towards achieving them?
Examples of Open-Ended Questions for Customer Research
- What factors influenced your decision to purchase this product or service?
- How would you describe your overall experience with our customer support team?
- What improvements or changes would you suggest to enhance the user experience of our website or app?
- Can you provide an example of a time when our product or service exceeded your expectations?
- What challenges or obstacles did you encounter while using our product or service, and how did you overcome them?
- How has using our product or service impacted your daily life or work?
- What features do you find most valuable in our product or service, and why?
- Can you describe your decision-making process when choosing between competing products or services in the market?
- What additional products or services would you be interested in seeing from our company?
- How do you perceive our brand in comparison to our competitors, and what factors contribute to this perception?
- What sources of information or communication channels did you rely on when researching our product or service?
- How likely are you to recommend our product or service to others, and why?
- Can you describe any barriers or concerns that might prevent potential customers from using our product or service?
- What aspects of our marketing or advertising caught your attention or influenced your decision to engage with our company?
- How do you envision our product or service evolving or expanding in the future to better meet your needs?
Examples of Open-Ended Questions for Preschoolers
- Can you tell me about the picture you drew today?
- What is your favorite thing to do at school, and why do you like it?
- How do you feel when you play with your friends at school?
- What do you think would happen if animals could talk like people?
- Can you describe the story we read today? What was your favorite part?
- If you could be any animal, which one would you choose to be and why?
- What would you like to learn more about, and why does it interest you?
- How do you help your friends when they’re feeling sad or upset?
- Can you tell me about a time when you solved a problem all by yourself?
- What is your favorite game to play, and how do you play it?
- If you could create your own superhero, what powers would they have and why?
- Can you describe a time when you were really brave? What happened?
- What do you think it would be like to live on another planet?
- If you could invent a new toy, what would it look like and what would it do?
- Can you tell me about a dream you had recently? What happened in the dream?
Open-Ended vs Closed-Ended Questions
|Category||Open-Ended Questions||Closed-Ended Questions|
|Definition||Require elaboration and full sentence responses. These questions cannot be answered with “yes” or “no”.||Can be answered with “yes,” “no,” or a very brief response, without elaboration.|
|Purpose||Encouraging deeper explanations, expression, and analysis from the respondent.||Gathering specific information, getting an explicit response, or confirming details.|
|Example||“Can you explain what happened to you when you went on vacation?”||“Did you enjoy your vacation?”|
|Benefit||Promotes deep thinking because in asking for a detailed response, students have to process and formulate complete thoughts.||Is great for gathering fast input, for example on likert scales during research or, during teacher-centered instruction, to quickly ensure students are following you.|
|Limitations||Often requires one-to-one discussion so is impractical in large group situations. Requires a skilled conversationalist who can think up questions that will elicit detailed responses.||Tends not to elicit detailed insights so cannot gather the full picture. It doesn’t help us get a nuanced understanding of people’s thoughts and opinions.|
|Ideal Use||In education, to get people thinking deeply about a topic. In conversation, to get people to share more about themselves with you and start an interesting conversation In research, to gather in-depth data from interviews and qualitative studies that can lead to rich insights.||In education, to gather formative feedback during teacher-centered instruction. In conversation, to get the clarifying information you need quickly. In reseasrch, to conducts large-scale surveys, polls, and quantitative studies that can generate population-level insights.|
Benefits of Open-Ended Questions
Above all, open-ended questions require people to actively think. This engages them in higher-order thinking skills (rather than simply providing restricted answers) and forces them to expound on their thoughts.
The best thing about these questions is that they benefit both the questioner and the answerer:
- Questioner: For the person asking the question, they benefit from hearing a full insight that can deepen their knowledge about their interlocutor.
- Answerer: For the person answering the question, they benefit because the very process of answering the question helps them to sort their thoughts and clarify their insights.
To expound, below are four of the top benefits.
1. Encouraging critical thinking
When we have to give full answers, our minds have to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize information. We can’t get away with a simple yes or no.
This is why educators embrace open-ended questioning, and preferably questions that promote higher-order thinking.
Expounding on our thoughts enables us to do things like:
- Thinking more deeply about a subject
- Considering different perspectives
- Identifying logical fallacies in our own conceptions
- Developing coherent and reasoned responses
- Reflecting on our previous actions
- Clarifying our thoughts.
2. Facilitating self-expression
Open-ended questions allow us to express ourselves. Imagine only living life being able to say “yes” or “no” to questions. We’d struggle to get across our own personalities!
Only with fully-expressed sentences and monologues can we share our full thoughts, feelings, and experiences. It allows us to elaborate on nuances, express our hesitations, and explain caveats.
At the end of explaining our thoughts, we often feel like we’ve been more heard and we have had the chance to express our full authentic thoughts.
3. Building stronger relationships
Open-ended questioning creates good relationships. You need to ask open-ended questions if you want to have good conversations, get to know someone, and make friends.
These sorts of questions promote open communication, speed up the getting-to-know-you phase, and allow people to share more about themselves with each other.
This will make you more comfortable with each other and give the person you’re trying to get to know a sense that you’re interested in them and actively listen to what they have to say. When people feel heard and understood, they are more likely to trust and connect with others.
Tip: Avoid Loaded Questions
One mistake people make during unstructured and semi-structured interviews is to ask open-ended questions that have bias embedded in them.
For an example of a loaded question, imagine if you asked a question: “why did the shop lifter claim he didn’t take the television without paying?”
Here, you’ve made a premise that you’re asking the person to consent to (that the man was a shop lifter).
A more neutral wording might be “why did the man claim he didn’t take the television without paying?”
The second question doesn’t require the person to consent to the notion that the man actually did the shop lifting.
This might be very important, for example, in cross-examining witnesses in a police station!
When asking questions, use questions that encourage people to provide full-sentence responses, at a minimum. Use questions like “how” and “why” rather than questions that can be answered with a brief point. This will allow people the opportunity to provide more detailed responses that give them a chance to demonstrate their full understanding and nuanced thoughts about the topic. This helps students think more deeply and people in everyday conversation to feel like you’re actually interested in what they have to say.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.