Open Questions

While reviewing a training package on team formation, I came across this question:

What are the four stages of team development?

You probably know the answer: forming, storming, norming, and performing.

If you answered the question correctly, what does it prove? Sure, you can recall the four stages of team development. But does this mean that you understand the concepts and can apply them to real-world teams?

Compare the original question with these questions:

  • What is an example of effective facilitation behavior during the norming stage?
  • What is an example of effective team-member behavior during the storming stage?
  • Which team-development stage is the most critical one? Why do you think so?
  • What additional stages would you add to the four team-development stages?

I am sure that you have noticed the differences between the original question and the latter questions. The latter questions require more thought. They challenge the participants. They require a deeper understanding of the concepts. They are intellectually more stimulating.

Unfortunately, however, the type of questions that are most frequently used in training activities is similar to the original question. This type features closed, convergent questions that fall in the one-correct-answer category. These are recall questions that require the lowest levels of thinking. They are impersonal and mechanical questions that patronize the learner by asking her to determine if a statement is true or to select the best answer among four insipid alternatives.

Why are closed questions so frequently used in training activities? Because it is easy to determine whether the answer is correct or not and because you can program a computer to check the answer.

Closed questions strongly suggest that participants are incapable of producing or recognizing creative responses to open-ended questions.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe recall questions are very important. Beginning learners should master the fundamental facts, figures, terminology, and definitions. They should practice these items until they acquire the required level of fluency.

But I am bothered by the perception that training games and interactive exercises are effective only for drill practice. Most trainers and participants and managers believe that games are limited to the basic knowledge and comprehension. These perceptions are reinforced by the trivial questions that are incorporated in instructional games. For example, people look at this question

By what percent did the Asian population in the U. S. grow in the decade 1980 to 1990?

and wonder what that has to do with the skills of getting along with a coworker from a different culture.

For the past 30 years, I have designed and used games with open-ended, divergent questions that require application, analysis, evaluation, problem solving, and synthesis. My secret? A fundamental belief that you are capable of comparing different responses and deciding which one is the best. Also, a belief that by comparatively judging other players’ responses, you master the criteria for effective responses and learn to apply them to your own responses.

Here’s a closed question: Is it not time for you to start using open-ended questions in your training games? (Give yourself 1 point if you answered “Yes”.)

Here’s an open-ended question: What strategies should we use for encouraging players to produce and recognize creative responses? (Decide for yourself how many points you deserve.)