ERIC Identifier: ED355253
Publication Date: 1992-12-00
Author: Badger, Elizabeth - Thomas, Brenda
Clearinghouse on Tests Measurement and Evaluation Washington DC.
Open-Ended Questions in Reading. ERIC/TM Digest.
Open-ended questions focus on students' understanding, their ability to
reason, and their ability to apply knowledge in less traditional contexts. Such
questions can communicate levels of student achievement more clearly than
multiple-choice items and give better guidance for instruction.
Open-ended questions are not multiple-choice questions without options. They
are not questions that demand a single correct response. Nor are they questions
where any response is acceptable.
Rather, open-ended questions address the essential concepts, processes, and
skills that go beyond the specifics of instruction to define a subject area. In
general, they require complex thinking and yield multiple solutions. Open-ended
questions require teachers or evaluators to interpret and use multiple criteria
in evaluating responses. Such questions also require more from students than
simply memorizing facts.
In this digest, we give a rationale for using open-ended questions. Next, we
discuss open-ended questions in reading, and finally, we outline some
implications for the classroom.
RATIONALE FOR OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS
During the past decade,
how we view learning and instruction has changed. Cognitive researchers have
provided evidence about the complexity of learning: Conceptual understanding is
more than just an accumulation of knowledge. It depends on an active
restructuring of old ideas to accommodate new experiences.
These research findings, with their emphasis on personal accountability, have
resonated in the practical world. As computers become repositories for
information, both policy planners and business experts have noted an increasing
need for people who can manage information, see patterns, identify needs, and
solve problems. At the same time, people who know the most about the content
itself have begun to re-examine what it means "to know" a discipline. In doing
so, they are discovering common themes and concepts underlying the various
content areas. Similar processes might be involved in learning and understanding
any subject area.
So, today we're seeing the focus shift from learning as content knowledge per
se to learning as the ability to use and interpret knowledge critically and
thoughtfully. Subject matter has always dominated education. In elementary
schools, the day is punctuated by shifts from reading to math to science to
social studies, as students put away one set of books or papers and take out
another. In middle schools and high schools, students move from class to class,
subject to subject, without seeing how one subject relates to another. Even
within subject areas, the layer-cake approach to curriculum obscures common
ideas and themes, reinforcing the notion that subject-area knowledge consists of
a set of discrete facts and theories.
Now, however, subject-area knowledge faces a serious challenge. Some experts
argue that critical thinking is as relevant to literature as it is to science,
social studies, and mathematics; that problem solving is not the sole purview of
mathematics, and that hypothesis formulation is not limited to science.
This change in how we view the goals of education has implications for
evaluation as well as instruction. If subject knowledge in itself is not a
sufficient criterion for achievement, judgments of correct and incorrect in
response to simple tests of skills and knowledge are not enough either. To
measure how well a student performs, teachers have to be able to examine the
process, not just the final product. Furthermore, people try to make sense of
their perceptions and experiences, and the associations that students make are
often idiosyncratic and may differ considerably from the ones we intended. These
views of student learning demand a more open-ended form of testing, along with a
more complex scheme of evaluation.
OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS IN READING
In the last few years,
educators and philosophers interested in the reading process have refined and
expanded the ideas and concept about reading and thinking. Two main themes have
emerged from this research:
o Readers assume constantly shifting attitudes while trying to understand any
o Literature is a powerful context for teaching and learning critical
Langer (1989) proposes four kinds of relationships that occur during the
reading process as readers' attitudes shift while they try to understand the
o Being out and stepping in. Readers use the information from the text and
their background knowledge to get enough information to "step into" the author's
vision. In literature, readers try to make an initial acquaintance with the
character, plot, and setting; in exposition, they try to figure out what the
topic is about.
o Being in and moving through. Readers immerse themselves in the author's
vision, trying to understand the author's meaning. In exposition, readers take
each new bit of information, trying to understand it and link it to what they
already understand the text to say about the topic. In fiction, they use each
new bit of information to go beyond what they already understand--asking
questions about motivation, causality, and implications.
o Being in and stepping out. Readers relate the text to their own knowledge
and experiences. Readers of fiction use what they read in the text to reflect on
their own lives, on the lives of others, or on the human condition in general.
In non-fiction, readers use the text information to rethink information they
o Stepping out and going beyond. Readers distance themselves from the text
and assume a critical stance, judging the text and relating it to other texts or
As readers construct their understanding of the text, interpretations are
often not possible. In fact, as Norris and Phillips (1987) suggest, the essence
of critical reading is raising alternative interpretations, weeding out
interpretations to the extent that available information will allow, and then
remaining with multiple possibilities. In their view, literary thinking is a
complex reasoning process that involves analyzing, synthesizing, reformulating,
linking, and generalizing ideas.
Therefore, in evaluating students, we can no longer simply judge whether or
not the reader's conclusions are similar to the teacher's or test constructor's.
Instead, the quality of the reader's argument or justification becomes most
IMPLICATIONS FOR THE CLASSROOM
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
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
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
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.
Herman, Joan, Pamela Aschbacher and Lynn
Winters. (1992). A Practical Guide to Alternative Assessment, Alexandria, VA:
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Langer, Judith. (1989). The process of understanding literature. Albany, NY:
Center for the Learning and Teaching of Literature, State University of New York
Norris, Stephen, & Linda Phillips. (1987). Explanations of reading
comprehension: Schema theory and critical thinking theory. Teachers College
Record, 89(2), 282-306.