Wednesday, August 19, 2015


“What matters is not how many toasters were fixed, but were any of them returned after repair.”

Open-ended questions take different forms in different disciplines and are graded based on different schemes. Regardless, their common characteristic is that they require the candidate to take a position on a particular concept, idea or perspective and justify the position with evidence. The taking and justifying of a position is the defining difference between an Open-ended Question and a Structured Question.

Amongst Open-ended Questions, there are subtle differences. There are those which offer 2 sides to an argument (the Binary) and those which offer 3 or more factors and require the best to be chosen (the Superlative). Notwithstanding, every Open-ended Question will consist of the following elements:
  • a statement which identifies the content and issue to be tested; 
  • a Command Word that elicits a candidate’s judgement and the justification of that judgement. 
The evaluative element usually comes in the form of Command Words such as;
  • How far do you agree with this statement? 
  • To what extent do you think/agree that...? 
  • How true is this statement? 
  • How successful…? 
  • Assess the success/effectiveness/impact of…? 
  • Evaluate the success/effectiveness/impact of…? 
  • Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of … 
  • … have been viewed as having both benefits and threats. Using examples, explain why this is so. 
This list is, of course, not exhaustive but suffice to say that as long as a question asks for an opinion whilst comparing factors, situations or causes, it is an Open-ended Question.

Such questions are graded based on various levels of response and these levels are organised with increasing demands on clarity, comprehensiveness and strength or support for the argument. Regardless of the type, the considerations when answering both are the same. This is because the answers are graded similarly.

Personally, I find that the CIE 'O' level Geography syllabus offers the simplest and most effective delineation between the levels of complexity and sophistication. So I'll use that for illustration.

Their rubric has 3 levels.

Level 1
  • Generalized answers with little support. 
  • Weak reasoning with many parts being unclear. 
  • Answer has little use of statistics or examples as support for the general argument. 
Level 2
  • Only ONE SIDE of the opinion is given and supported with appropriate evidence, OR 
  • BOTH SIDES of the opinion are discussed, with weak support given for either or both. 
  • Appropriate terms and examples are used with the argument presented in a logical manner. 
Level 3
  • Comprehensive answers which are supported by sound knowledge of theory and concepts. 
  • BOTH SIDES of the opinion are discussed and well supported with appropriate examples and evidence. 
  • Appropriate terms and examples are used with the argument presented in a logical manner and with good expression. 
Although different disciplines grade answers differently, almost all Open-ended Answers will be based on these 3 distinct levels. Some may add levels in-between to elicit an even greater level of complexity and sophistication, but few can do with less. Hence, this would, in my opinion, form a good basis for understanding the demands of Open-ended question in general.

With this in mind, there are a few steps that should be followed when writing the answers. Similar to analyzing structure questions, we begin by identifying the following items;

Topic & Section: The area of content to cover.
Factors: The factors/areas to compare/discuss.
Command Word: To establish the 2 sides of the argument.

The Command Word for Open-ended questions is particularly important as they define the binary, or the 2 sides of the argument, that is to be dealt with in the question. The terms used to define the 2 sides should be strictly adhered to as changing them can sometimes create inaccuracies in the question. Here is an example;
‘Evaluate the effectiveness of international agreements, like the Kyoto Protocol, in combating climate change.’
The Command Word here is ‘Evaluate’. However, together with it comes the value term ‘effectiveness’. This term should be strictly adhered to when answering the question. If the term were to be changed to, let’s say, ‘advantages’, the subtle difference between an advantage (i.e. to bring benefit) and effectiveness (i.e. the success in producing a desired result) may focus the answer on the opportunities for collaboration that international agreements bring instead on how such collaboration help to combat climate change. This will skew the answer off topic.

So, after establishing the key elements, draw up a comparison table.

Binary Side 1


Binary Side 2

(not successful)
Factor A

Factor B

This table allows for the 2 sides of the argument to be identified and therefore comprehensively discussed in the answer. This is done regardless of whether the question presents 2 sides of an argument or multiple factors for assessment.

Now, we begin writing. Here I would like to offer the following structure as a guide to constructing the answer.

Introductory Paragraph
In this paragraph, you should make the stand should be made explicit and clear. A good start will be to answer the question directly.

Given Factor
Open-ended questions sometimes name factors for discussion. They could comprise all or some of the relevant factors. Regardless, this factor should be dealt with before comparing the factor with other factors. This is how you should write the paragraph.
  1. State the point you are trying to make about the factor.
  2. Explain what you are trying to say.
  3. Give an example or case study to illustrate your point.
  4. Say how this affects the question.
Other Supporting Factor (as many as you feel is necessary)
These factors should be handled the same way as your given factor. Follow the steps listed earlier.

Transition Paragraph
After dealing with all the supporting paragraphs, you need to move onto the opposing side of the argument. The point is to acknowledge that there are alternative viewpoints and yet be able to persuade the reader that your points are stronger. For this, a transition paragraph is necessary to signal to the reader that you are going to deal with the opposing factors, but you are not changing your mind about your position. A typical transition paragraph should be short and read like this;
However, I acknowledge that there are opposing views to the question.
Opposing Factor (as many as you feel necessary)
These factors should be handled the same way as your given factor. Follow the steps. The key to these paragraphs is the ending. Though you discuss the strengths in the paragraph, you should state how this factor is flawed at the end.

Weighing Paragraph
This is the paragraph that will set you apart from the rest and move you from Level 2 to Level 3. If done well, this paragraph should be able to show that you have thought through the issue, weighed out the pros and cons of each factor and ranked their importance. You can do this by either grouping the factors by commonality or dealing with them one against the other. But in the end, you should be able to tell the reader which is the most important and which is not. A typical weighing paragraph should sound like this;
Though there are alternative views to the issue, I feel that (whatever you are trying to argue) is still true because... Hence you can see that the main causes are ..., ..., and ..., whilst the other factors, while valid, are not as important to the issue as those mentioned.
Because you have already said so much, this paragraph should be nothing more than restating your stand.

To illustrate the discussion above, here is a worked example.

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