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Ask Open Questions

While reviewing a training game on team formation, I came across this question:

What are the four stages of team development?

You probably know the answer: forming, storming, norming, and performing.

If you answered the question correctly, what does it prove? Sure, you can recall the four stages of team development. But does this mean that you understand the principles and can apply them to real-world teams?

Compare the original question with these questions:

I am sure that you noticed the difference between the original question and the latter questions. The latter questions require more thinking. They reflect the type of questions that professionals face more frequently. They are the questions that challenge the participants. They require a deeper understanding of the principles. They are intellectually stimulating.

Unfortunately, however, the questions that are most frequently used in training games are similar to the original question. These closed, convergent questions fall in the one-correct-answer category. They are fact-recall questions that require the lowest levels of thinking. They are meaningless, impersonal, mechanical questions that patronize the learner by asking her to determine if a statement is true or to select the best answer among four insipid alternatives.

Why is this type of closed question so frequently used in training activities? Because it is easy to determine whether the answer is correct or not, because the answers can be evaluated by any player, and because you can program a computer to check the answer.

The use of closed questions conveys a strong impression that players are incapable of producing or recognizing creative responses to open-ended questions.

Don't get me wrong. I believe recall questions are very important. Beginning learners should master the fundamental facts, figures, terminology, and definitions. They should practice these items until they acquire the required level of fluency.

But I am bothered by the perception that games and interactive exercises are effective only for drill practice. Most trainers and participants and managers believe that games are limited to basic knowledge and comprehension. These perceptions are reinforced by the trivial questions that are incorporated in most instructional games. For example, people look at this question

By what percentage did the Asian population in the U. S. grow from 1980 to 1990?

and wonder what that has to do with the skills of getting along with a coworker from a different culture.

For the past 30 years, I have designed and used games with open-ended, divergent questions that require application, analysis, evaluation, problem-solving, and synthesis. My secret? A fundamental belief that players are capable of comparing different responses and deciding which one is the best. Also, a belief that by comparatively judging other players' responses, you master the criteria for effective responses and learn to apply them to your own responses. For example, the TROIKA framegame involves groups of three players. In each group, participants take turns to play the role of a judge who picks up a question card and reads an open-ended question. The other two participants take turns to respond to the question. The judge distributes 7 points between the two answers to reflect the relative quality of the two answers.

You can even have a computer game that handles responses to an open-ended question. For a brilliant example, check out ACROBPHOBIA ( on the Web.

Here's a closed question:

Isn't it time for you to start using open-ended questions in your training games?

Give yourself 1 point if you answered "Yes".

Here's an open-ended question:

What strategies can we use for encouraging players to produce and recognize creative responses?

Decide for yourself how many points you deserve.

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