Higher Education

Add Authenticity By Skipping Multiple Choice

A short video clip on what types of questions are most effective for meaningful learning

Open-ended questions create more effective learning opportunities and should replace more traditional question types. 

Watch the full webinar here.


Derek Bruff:

I want to share a few ideas here as you start to rethink, well, what do we do? How can we make these assignments a little more authentic? And this is from an initiative I led at Vanderbilt University, called the Students as Producers Initiative, and we were looking for ways to help faculty engage their students, not just as consumers of information, but as producers of knowledge. And so we looked at a lot of different ways this can happen in different disciplines, different approaches. One common element was giving students open-ended problems. If the answers to the questions are all known, then the assignment does feel a little bit more like busy work. More authentic assignments are more open-ended.

And so for instance, I talked with Steve Baskauf in the biology department. That’s Steve in the upper right there. He was doing a biology lab where students were working in groups to do actual research projects. So not like groundbreaking research, but he worked with a team of grad students to develop some open-ended research questions for students where the answers were not known and the students had to design an experiment to test certain things. And I went to the poster session for this course and talk to the students, and almost every one of the students said at some point, “All of our little amoebas,” or whatever they were, “All the creatures died, the plants died, the insects died.” Their experiments almost always failed the first time, but they had chance in the semester to revise those experiments. And I think that’s an important learning opportunity.

Steve said, “There are always a fair number of failures, but that’s what happens when you tackle open-ended questions. You do have to focus a little bit more on the process, but you have the opportunity to have students learn from failure. Or a different discipline entirely, Betsey Robinson in the history of art at Vanderbilt was having students do digital restorations. So this is a photo of the frieze, some of the sculpture on the Greek Parthenon, and as you can see, some of the sculpture is in better shape than in other parts. And so the assignment was to actually create a 3D rendering of this sculpture and then fill in the gaps. And so this is a screenshot of one student’s work who did this, and so she had to figure out what would’ve been there, what do we know about the rest of this sculpture, about techniques and methods of the time?

It was a very open-ended question and it had some elements of creativity, but she also needed to make research-based informed choices as she was doing her artistic rendering of this.