A Question of Questions, Part 1: Open and Closed Questions

by Harmony Button

The answers you get from literature depend on the questions you pose.
~ Margaret Atwood

The Thinking:

As teachers, we all know the pleasure of curiosity – that spark of interest that isn’t driven by the promise of a grade – and more than anything else, we want our students to experience that kind of pleasure in our classrooms. We strive to create that buzz of curiosity, whether it manifests in a sharp, collective inhale, or a moment of potent silence, or an explosion of chatter that actually tears the conversation into splinter-groups and questions. However it shows up in your classroom, you know the feeling of collective curiosity when you’ve got it.

But as teachers, we also know how hard it is to maintain this kind of raw energy. We know the feeling of an apathetic class, one that scowls and drags its way through lessons, that tangents at every opportunity, or that tries desperately to regurgitate the correct answer, without really caring about anything except the reassurance of having been right.

Following our discussions of Carol Dweck’s Mindset, I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between celebrating what students already know, vs. what they want to know. So often, it seems that student frustration, resistance, and apathy are driven by a feeling that they don’t see the path to the right answers – that the particular discipline is closed off to them, that they just don’t have access to this kind of thinking. In order to encourage the growth mindset, we want to take our focus off of performance, and put it on process. But how do offer up invitations into the process of learning that get students excited, that make them feel capable and included in all of our disciplines?

When it comes to getting a class on board with learning, it seems like we are all chasing the same elusive element – genuine curiosity, the kind that sparks active engagement, that promotes independence, that drives a student towards perseverance in the face of difficulty and adversity. So the question is, how do we get our students to become curious, to want to know more? How do we get our students to ask the right kind of questions?

The Practice:

When it comes to getting students to ask productive questions, we need to start by looking at what kind of questions we ask them, and how we respond to their answers.

There are two basic kinds of questions – open questions, which invite exploration and accept various possible answers, and closed questions, which elicit a limited range of correct answers (often beginning with “yes” or “no”). Open questions tend to use conditional language – “how could…,” “what might…,” “what’s one way to…”. etc. Closed questions tend to speak in absolutes: “who is, how should, what’s the answer to…” etc.

When you ask questions that have set answers, you are asking your students to perform, rather than to process their learning. This isn’t always a negative tactic – quizzing students with closed questions can be an effective way to pull individuals back into a lecture or presentation… but answering these kind of quiz questions more often solidifies existing knowledge than it opens new curiosities. Closed questions can offer students a sense of reassurance: when a student gets the answer right, s/he feels smart and validated. But closed questions can also promote panic, instead of curiosity: when students get closed questions wrong, they can develop fixed mindsets about their abilities. Closed questions are opportunities to demonstrate and reinforce past learning, but they are not often moments of growth.

So why do we reach to closed questions so much of the time? Sometimes teachers default to closed questions as a way of building in quick, easy student participation in their lessons: if a teacher can toss out a closed question and get a quick, correct response, then that teacher knows that the student is listening, has mastered that particular skill or bit of information, and that it has been reiterated for the rest of the class. Closed questions are also completely in the control of the teacher: they tend to fit neatly into ongoing lecture-style classes that need to move through a lot of information pretty quickly. And in these contexts, they seem to work, pretty well.

But the problem with using too many closed questions is that they tend to be answered quickly, and they’re right or wrong. Closed questions guide students down a cognitive path that a teacher has predetermined – and so, students judges themselves against their ability to “keep up” with the questions. Students who get questions correct are the smart students. Those who get them wrong should let someone answer next time. Or that’s how students start to see themselves reflected in the mirror of the questions.

These assumptions are exactly what we want to avoid – but how else do you get through a content-heavy unit? How else do you teach a student the difference between a right and wrong answer?

Rephrasing Closed Questions:

If you find yourself frequently quizzing students with your closed questions, think about other ways to engage their participation, keep them on their toes, and reconnect with the “so what?” question that drives student curiosity. Sometimes, this comes in rephrasing the question. Sometimes, you might realize that although your question sounds open, you’re really fishing for a certain kind of answer from your students. Often, when this is the case, your students can tell.

Here are a few examples of closed questions, which have been revised as open questions:



Closed Question

Open Question


In Comedy of Errors, does Adriana end up in the kind of marriage that her sister approves of?

This sounds like an open question, but it’s acting like a closed one – because even though it begs for qualification, it is still a yes or no answer… and it sounds like the teacher is fishing for a specific answer.

Let’s talk about Adriana’s marriage. What seems important in her relationship?

This is a more open question because the teacher probably doesn’t quite know how the students will respond, yet a range of responses might lead to interesting discussions.


What are the three branches of government?

This is an obviously closed question because it is based on vocabulary and factual recall.

What are some of the things that people expect the U.S. government to do?

This question will elicit all kinds of responses, which can then be organized. It will lead to the question of what kinds of things ‘go’ together, which will hopefully draw some student to offer up the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.

Foreign Language

Who can conjugate this verb in the present tense?

This is asking for a performance. The volunteer is asserting confidence, because the question forces them into making a claim about their own abilities.

This is the verb “to want.” What are some things that you want, right now?

There is clearly a right and wrong way to conjugate a verb, but the grammar is not framed as an essential ability, but rather, a practice of usage.


Solve for X.

This directive suggests that there is a preferred way to solve for X. It also kicks students into performance mode, before it reminds them to note process.

What do you need to know, in order to solve for X? What might you do first, to solve for X?

This is the kind of question that sets students up to think about process, rather than result.


What is happening in this experiment?

The verb “is” is absolute, and it cues students not to answer unless they’re sure they are right.

What do you see happening in this experiment? What might be causing this reaction?

This asks for observation and hypothesis. The conditional “might be” allows for greater risk-taking in student responses.

For a more in-depth look at open vs. closed questions, you can check out the Question Formulation Technique, see this abbreviated article on QFT from Harvard Ed, or come borrow the slim little book Make Just One Change that you could easily browse in an hour or so.

For a deeper look at types of questions in the classroom, check out this typology of classroom questions (and then notice how frequently you find yourself focusing your classroom around each type of question).

The Habit:

Begin to pay attention to the type of questions you ask, and begin to work more open questions into your teaching habits. Think about using observational and conditional language to help reframe closed questions as open ones. Observe how students respond differently to open and closed questions. Encourage students to also ask open questions and make sure that you, as teacher, also model the kind of intellectual curiosity that leads to the most interesting (if occasionally ill-timed) open questions.

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One Response to A Question of Questions, Part 1: Open and Closed Questions

  1. Rich M says:

    Conditional questions that create working hypotheses is de rigueur in science. This is essentially the entire year of Class VII science as we take one experiment which leads us to the next. You would only use a “closed” question once a principle has been established and there IS only one correct answer. Sometimes a “closed” question is appropriate and understanding the answer essential in order to move to the next topic.

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