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Getting Smarter through Language

How to Answer and Elaborate on Open-Ended Questions Effectively
(C-Level, Advanced Writing Skill)

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About Open-Ended Questions and Answers

Open-ended questions are questions requiring more than a simple “yes” or “no” answer. You find them frequently, for example, on tests and exams or in exercises.

Your answer can be a simple statement (or a simple answer) addressing the question. However, if you want to address the topic clearly and thoroughly, it is important to provide details in addition to the simple answer.


In a way, a good answer to an open-ended question can be like a “mini essay” where you show what you have learned about the topic. In this course, we will explore strategies for elaborating on answers to open-ended questions so that your answer is thorough.

General Use

If they are well designed, open-ended questions require learners to think critically and creatively and to demonstrate their ability to apply what they have learned to new situations. They are often used in courses (e.g., in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences), where students are expected to demonstrate higher-order thinking skills such as analyzing, synthesizing, and interpreting information.

In the Language Classroom

You are often asked open-ended questions in language courses to help you develop written and spoken skills. Even very simple questions can help you practice; however, very short answers will not get you very far. Below is an example of how you can elaborate on a very short answer.

Example of a short answer without and with elaboration

A very brief answer to an oral open-ended question will not give you the opportunity to practice or use what you are learning.

Teacher:“What are you doing this weekend?”

Student:”Nothing special.”

Instead of such a bland answer, you can elaborate on it.

Teacher:What are you doing this weekend?

Student: ”Nothing special. I’ve had a long week, so I want to sleep in on Saturday and do some yard work if the weather is good. I also want to relax with my family the rest of the weekend. Maybe we will go to the park or stay home and watch movies. How about you? Do you have any plans?

Answering Open-Ended Questions

Understand the Question and the Content

When answering an open-ended exam question (or any question for that matter), you must first understand the question. You must understand what you are expected to cover in your answer. After all, an answer that fails to address the question is a “bad answer" even if the answer has good content in it.

Question Prompts

Read the question carefully and pay attention to the “question prompt,” or the part of the question that lets you know what you need to address. Prompts include question words or phrases such as “what,” “which,” “how,” “when,” and so on. In addition, question prompts can include verbs such as “analyze,” “discuss,” “compare,” “explain,” “interpret,” and so on.

Question prompts often include a combination of words and phrases such as “what is the difference between,” “What are the main categories of,” or “according to X, what should happen if.”

Question Context and Content

Open-ended questions may also include an introduction that gives you the context for the question and information such as diagrams, tables, graphs, or other materials that you must analyze and interpret to answer the question.

Sample analyses of open-ended questions and the tasks involved

Question 1: What are phonemes and allophones?

The topic is “phonemes and allophones.”

The question prompt is “what are,” so your task is to create a simple answer including definitions.

Question 2: What are the main differences between vascular and nonvascular plants?

The topic is “vascular and nonvascular plants.”

The question prompt is “what” and “main differences.” The task is to create a simple answer so that you list and explain differences, or contrast.

Question 3: A series of events contributed to a climate of excessive risk-taking and speculation in the financial industry dating as far back as the 1980s and 1990s. What main factors ultimately led to the 2008 financial crisis?

The first sentence provides context or background information for the question (a series of events that contributed to risk-taking and speculation in the financial industry).

The topic is the 2008 financial crisis. A subtopic is the background information (excessive risk-taking and speculation in the financial industry).

The key words in the question prompt are “what main factors” and “led to.” Your task is to create a simple answer so that you list causes and effects.

Important note about “directives” or “directive prompts”

About “Directives” or “Directive Prompts”

Comprehension and test materials often include items that are not phrased as questions. These are called “directives” or “directive prompts.” Although they are not phrased as questions, it is understood that you are asked to provide information about the topic. To respond to and elaborate on directive prompts, you can use the same techniques that you will learn in this course.

Here are some examples of directive prompts:

1. The scientific method is a systematic approach to investigating natural phenomena involving developing and testing hypotheses. Explain the process of hypothesis testing in the scientific method.

2. In The World According to Garp, John Irving explores several themes. Discuss one major theme in the novel.

3. The American Civil War was one of the most significant events in U.S. history. Analyze the impact of the American Civil War on the economic and social development of the United States. Use specific examples of historical events.

4. Food deserts are areas where access to affordable and nutritious food is limited or nonexistent. Discuss the causes and effects of food deserts and potential solutions to address this issue.

Such directive prompts often have several “indirect questions” in them. For example, item 1 could be phrases as, “What is the purpose of hypothesis testing? What are the steps involved in it? How do you interpret its results?” and so on. As you can see, using directive prompts is a way to include several questions into a single prompt. You should interpret such prompts as if they were a series of questions.

Outline Your Answer

Once you have identified the topic and subtopics and understand what you must address in your answer to an open-ended question, outline the answer based on your knowledge of the subject. Start with the simple answer, or the statement or statements that directly address the question.

Next, include supporting details in the outline. These are details that help give context to and clarify your simple answer. Make sure the information you will provide addresses the task in the question, that is, to define concepts, to contrast ideas, to explain and discuss causes and effects, and so on. (See the sample analyses of open-ended questions above.)

Especially if you are under time constraints (e.g., during a timed examination), the outline does not need to be very detailed. Just take a few seconds to plan your answer. Then follow that plan as you write your answer.

If the question is oral, you will have to answer on the fly, but that is the nature of spoken and written language. Oral answers are expected to be unplanned, but you can still apply many of the techniques in this course to elaborate on oral answers.

Write and Elaborate on the Simple Answer

Finally, write your answer addressing all elements in the question. The simple answer must always be included. It is the minimum amount of information you need to answer the question.

However, the simple answer by itself is often insufficient. You can develop a clear and thorough answer by using one or more strategies such as framing the issue, providing examples or illustrations, including anecdotes, and so on. Practicing these strategies will not only improve your communication skills but also help you to engage in meaningful conversations and discussions.

Choosing the Right Technique to Elaborate on Your Answers

There are several techniques you can use to elaborate on an answer to an open-ended question such as framing the topic, providing examples, or acknowledging different perspectives on an issue. This is important to keep in mind: You do not need to use every technique. You can use one or more of them depending on the type of question you are answering and the content of your answer.

For example, if a question is about two or more ideas or concepts that you can compare and contrast, you may want to highlight similarities and differences between them; if the question is about a controversial issue, you may want to present counterarguments; and so on.

In the next portions of this course, we will look at a few techniques you can use.

Up Next: Strategy 1. Frame the Issue

Continue the lesson to learn this technique you can use to elaborate on your answer.

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