We ask a lot of important questions: What is love? What time does the bus get here? Doesn’t the Golden Snitch make the whole rest of the game pointless and unnecessary? All of the questions that we ask fall into two major categories: open-ended questions and closed-ended questions. What do these names really mean? What is the difference between the types of questions? We are going to answer those questions and explore how the type of question you ask often impacts the type of answer you’ll get.
What is an open-ended question?
An open-ended question is any question that can’t be answered with a single word or doesn’t have a specific correct answer. Typically, a person will need to stop and think about how to answer an open-ended question. Open-ended questions can and often do have long answers and may also ask a person to answer with an opinion or personal interpretation rather than ask them to recite a fact.
Examples of open-ended questions
The following questions are examples of open-ended questions; they can’t be answered with a single word and/or don’t have a single correct answer.
- Why do you like pop music?
- What were you doing on the night of March 5?
- What effects did the Industrial Revolution have on society?
- Who was the best player to play for the Denver Broncos and why?
- What is your most precious childhood memory?
What is a closed-ended question?
A closed-ended or closed question is, simply put, any question that isn’t an open-ended question. A closed-ended question either has a person choose from a selection of answers, can be answered with a single word, or has a fixed correct answer. Often, closed-ended questions are referred to using terms that specifically describe what kind of question it is. For example, you have probably heard closed-ended questions referred to by names such as “multiple-choice questions,” “yes or no questions,” “true-false questions,” or “fixed-choice questions.”
Closed-ended questions often have short answers that a person may only need a second to figure out. Closed-ended questions often require facts as answers and often only have a single correct answer. They may ask a person’s opinion, but rarely ask a person to explain their opinion or to elaborate further on it.
Examples of close-ended questions
The following questions are examples of close-ended questions. They either have a fixed answer, can be answered with a single word or short phrase, or ask a person to select from a choice of specific answers.
- Is an apple a fruit? (The only logical answers are “Yes” or “No.” The question also has a single correct answer: Yes.)
- True or False? Penguins can swim. (A person is asked to choose between two answers. The question also has a fixed answer: True.)
- Who was America’s first president? (This question has a fixed, short answer: George Washington.)
- What time is it? (This question has a single correct answer.)
- Which country do you live in? (Although this question has many possible answers, a person can and probably will answer it with a single word or phrase.)
What is a leading question?
A leading question is a question that is worded in a way so as to lead to an answer that the asker wants. A leading question could be either an open-ended or closed-ended question.
An example of a leading question would be We all know that Colonel Mustard is the culprit, right? By the way that this question is worded, the asker clearly expects the answer to be “Yes.” By framing the question this way, the asker is trying to lead someone to an answer they want: that Colonel Mustard is the guilty person.
Here are two more examples of leading questions:
- Closed-ended: Should we really continue to listen to this obvious liar? (The asker of this question clearly wants someone to answer “No.”)
- Open-ended: What do you think about the abominable act of declawing cats? (The asker of this question has used biased language to make it clear that they expect the answer to be a negative opinion of something they personally dislike.)
When to use open-ended vs. closed-ended questions
Generally speaking, the choice of whether to ask an open-ended or closed-ended question will depend entirely on what the point of the question is. If a person wants a quick, simple answer they will probably ask a closed-ended question. On the other hand, if they want to know every detail of a person’s thoughts, they are much more likely to ask an open-ended question. Often, an asker will use both open-ended and closed-ended questions to test someone or to try and find the answers they are looking for. Let’s look at some specific situations where different types of questions might be used.
Often, the point of surveys is to try and learn people’s opinions or feelings about something. Depending on how much detail is wanted, a survey constructor may decide to use either open-ended or closed-ended questions.
For example, national surveys are often interested in gathering information or opinions of very large groups of people. Because they may not have the time or resources to review thousands or millions of lengthy responses, these surveys will often only have multiple choice questions (closed-ended) with short answers such as What is your age? or Who do you plan to vote for in the election? Because the answers are short, the survey taker can quickly and accurately review them and discover the information they were after. Even when using closed-ended questions, though, a survey maker may first use a data collection survey that uses open-ended questions to try and figure out what the answer choices for closed-ended questions should be.
However, a survey maker might instead want long, detailed opinions. For example, a company might survey its customers to get feedback on their products or services. In this case, the company specifically needs detailed answers so they can learn exactly what people like and don’t like. For a survey like this, they will probably ask open-ended questions such as What is your least favorite ride in the amusement park and why? or How can we better address the needs of our younger audience members?
Tests and assessments
Many tests and assessments that are used to determine a person’s knowledge or mastery of something use written or oral questions. Generally speaking, whether or not these tests use open-ended or closed-ended questions (or both) depend entirely on the test maker. However, because time is often a factor, many standardized tests used in schools and universities will rely much more heavily on closed-ended questions.
The reason behind this often boils down to technological limitations or time constraints. Computer programs or machines can quickly and efficiently mark the answer to a closed-ended question as being right or wrong by comparing it to the correct answers it has been provided with. Human test reviewers can do the same thing, albeit more slowly and less efficiently.
Tests with open-ended questions are much more difficult to review because the test taker could write anything as an answer. A human reviewer would take much longer to review these answers and a computer may be unable to review it at all. Open-ended questions will often take longer to answer as well, so more time will need to be allotted so that the test taker has a reasonable amount of time to finish the test.
For this reason, open-ended questions are often used sparingly on tests or are reserved for high-level tests where the point of the question is to test a person’s thought process or cognitive abilities rather than whether or not they know a “correct” answer. For example, the point of many essay questions is to test if a student knows how to effectively back up an argument with supportive evidence.
When leading a discussion, such as at work or in school, a person will often need to use both open-ended and closed-ended questions to keep the conversation going.
In general, open-ended questions will encourage people to give longer answers, which in turn will usually encourage other people to offer their own opinions or viewpoints. Typically, the point of a discussion is to resolve problems or to share information, so open-ended questions can be useful to reach this goal.
However, open-ended questions can often lead to unhelpful or irrelevant answers. If this happens, a discussion leader may use closed-ended questions to steer the conversation back in a more useful direction. For example, a manager may ask what is causing a loss of sales and present multiple possible theories to encourage everyone to analyze the likelihood of each one.
Turning closed-ended questions into open-ended questions
Many closed-ended questions can be turned into open-ended questions. Typically, this is done by using words like how, why, or what that require more than a brief, one-word answer to the question.
|Closed-ended question||Open-ended question|
|Do you feel sick?||How are you feeling?|
|Do you like pizza?||What do you think of pizza?|
|Was Gandhi an influential figure?||How did Gandhi impact the world?|
|Did you have a nice weekend?||How was your weekend?|
|Was Richard I a good king?||What kind of king was Richard I?|
Using open-ended questions as conversation starters
Open-ended questions are useful conversation starters and people often recommend using them as icebreakers. Unlike closed-ended questions, open-ended questions often allow you to learn more about a person by listening to how they answer a question and not just what answer they give. Open-ended questions also give a person a chance to talk about themselves, which science has shown is most people’s favorite topic.
These 20 questions are good examples of conversation-starting open-ended questions because you will often learn a lot about someone by asking them.
- How are you?
- How do you know (Person)?
- How’s work going?
- How’s school?
- What are your hobbies?
- What did you like to do as a kid?
- What is your dream job?
- What are your plans for the weekend?
- What are your pet peeves?
- If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
- If you won the lottery, how would you spend the money?
- Who is your hero?
- If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be?
- What makes you happy?
- Where’s a good place to eat around here?
- What is your favorite holiday?
- What is your favorite song?
- What did you want to be when you grew up?
- What is your favorite app?
- What would your dream home be?