Open Ended Questions

Open Ended Questions

One of the skills that engineers are required to have is critical thinking and the ability to quickly assess and analyze a situation. [Good] Engineers are often brought in to situations because they have a certain background or have worked on a particular topic before but this new situation is slightly different than their previous experience. However, the time to get immersed in a topic is limited and often, they’re asked for their opinion the same time that they’re learning about the new topic. This is difficult situation because the engineer often doesn’t have all of the pieces to put together a complete puzzle. However, they often have enough to get a clear picture of the situation to assess accordingly.

Because this is a skill needed by engineers, one question for engineering educators is “how can this skill be taught?”. The best method that I can think of that can at least challenge students along this line is to only ask open ended questions. This is one area where I’ve received a lot of complaints from students, which has required me to repeatedly justify why I ask certain questions on assignments, lab reports, and my comprehensive exam. In the past, students haven’t always been required to write a lab report, but rather answer a series of questions on specific tasks in the lab. This semester, I’ve reverted back to full lab reports to reinforce technical writing but I’ve also changed the wording of questions to be open ended, rather than looking for a specific number/answer.

I’ve found that students struggle with this because instead of computing Mohr’s Circle and reporting the answer, they are asked qualitatively “What does the results from Mohr’s Circle tell you about the loading of the beam? How might this system be modified to limit the failure due to excessive stress?”. This forces students to not only understand the surface issue (computing stress from Mohr’s Circle), but also to use that information to make engineering judgments that do not have a clear defined path. For instance, they could discuss how the shear stress is high and the material should be changed because it’s stronger in shear. Alternatively, they could discuss the profile of the beam. There are a multitude of options, so long as the student explains their thought process and adequately justifies their decision.

On the flip side, open ended questions present a challenge for the instructor (ie: me) because open ended questions are difficult to construct and grading evenly is difficult. Also, when teaching a class for a second time, I have to change the questions because they will have the previous semesters’ answers. I have a sneaky suspicion students are already using previous lab reports (I haven’t changed 100% of the questions yet) so that’s something I’ll need to keep on my toes about.

What do you think about the balance between direct questions and open ended questions? Should freshmen and sophomores get more direct questions while juniors and seniors get more open ended? Or should there be a mix at all levels?

[photo credit: when i grow up]


It’s a tradeoff. IMO, the typical lab structure is a horrible place to ask open-ended questions because 1) students really are not given time to think about things and 2) you can’t expect a particular answer. In other words, if they’re trying to figure out how to evaluate something in an open-ended question, they’re going to need time to tinker and mess with things – something often not available in a lab where their time is seriously confined. This can and often will mean they’ll come up with unexpected approaches to things. Those things may not be what you wanted them to come up with, but they’re not necessarily wrong, either. It then becomes incumbent upon you to verify if they’re correct or not. Therefore, if you’re expecting a particular answer or solution, you’re better off asking guided questions.

The other danger is jumping to the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy before your students are comfortable at the lower levels. So, as an example, I would probably take freshman or sophomores and give them more factual information and fewer analysis questions. A senior, however, may have a lot more in the way of analysis and fewer questions on factual information. Even so, there will be students at both ends that will struggle. Your global thinkers will have a tough time with memorization, and your sensing/sequential learners will really struggle with the analysis (and there are a lot of those in engineering).

Anyway, I do agree that asking open-ended questions is a lot better for analysis, but then I think you need to rethink how you’re approaching the lab, as well. You’ll need to make sure that how the lab is presented is representative of how those analysis skills would be utilized in a real-world setting. If you’re expecting students to take a ‘cook-book’ lab and apply good analysis skills, you might be barking up the wrong tree.

Also, FWIW, I like the idea of having a cook-book lab to teach basics followed by a lab which is basically being given a problem to solve using the knowledge they acquired. Therefore, you’re getting them the basics first, then expecting them to use those skills analytically.

I guess I didn’t explain that too clearly. I don’t give open ended questions per-say in the lab. But in the assignments leading up to the lab and on comprehensive exams, i do give them open ended questions.

There needs to be a mix of basic skills and design problems. I’ve seen at my own university that computer engineering does an excellent job of mixing in design problems from early on, computer science does it in later classes, and EE never seems to do it at all (students see their first design problem in the senior design project, and are totally unprepared). I imagine that this varies enormously from school to school, depending where the good teachers are (our EE faculty were chosen purely on research publications it seems, and never developed a teaching culture).

GSWOP, I fee we skew towards the latter (which I’m trying to change). I definitely don’t think research is the only thing that faculty should be chosen for. I’ve raised that issue here when it’s come up and some people (top-notch researchers) look at me like I’m crazy and some people (like the dean) seem to agree.

I think you can always find people that can do good research. But finding someone that’s good at teaching and research is a keeper to me.

Another issue to consider is the language barrier. International students often have a good grasp of English but parsing a vague question like “What does[sic] the results from Mohr’s Circle tell you about the loading of the beam?” can be tricky even for a native speaker. Because this is a sort of loaded question where there’s an answer that the author is expecting you to see and write about, but isn’t asking for directly.

There are many “true” answers to this question, but only a few of them would probably be marked “correct”. So you have to see through the question to find out what it is you’re actually being asked to write.

For example, I could say that “Mohr’s circle tells me that stresses in the beam can be broken up into normal and shear components”. I could also say that “Mohr’s circle tells me that the maximum in-plane shear stress in the beam is X, and the maximum normal stess is Y”. Or “the results from Mohr’s circle tell me that the beam will not exceed its yield stress”. Perhaps I might also want to talk about the angle at which the maximum shear stresses occur, or if it’s a 3-dimensional problem, about how there are multiple different maximum stresses and how they act.

A native English speaker might brush these issues aside and assume that obviously what’s being asked is the question that they feel is most relevant, and they might be happy to write a few paragraphs to explain their answer. But someone without an English background can struggle because it isn’t immediately obvious to them that the question is being deliberately vague; instead they’ll think that they just haven’t understood it correctly. And then they might have more difficulty formulating an appropriate answer, even if they understand the engineering material perfectly well.

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