Open-ended problem learning

Open-ended problem learning

By Dr. Richard Bair and Dr. Beth Teagarden Bair
Training & Development, Volume 45, Number 2
ISSN 1839-8561
By Rik Bair

By Dr. Richard Bair and Dr. Beth Teagarden Bair
Training & Development, Volume 45, Number 2
ISSN 1839-8561

Open-ended problem learning

By Rik Bair
Often referred to as problem-based learning, this narrative technique is a student-centred approach that either groups or individuals can perform. The focus of the instruction requires learners to solve an open-ended problem using what they already know, as well as their newly-acquired knowledge, about a new topic.

The learners develop content knowledge and key critical thinking skills, such as problem solving, organisation of information, self assessment, reasoning, and communication skills (Athreya and Mouza, 2017). At the higher education level, the development of these skills helps maintain learner interest as they realise they are learning the skills necessary to be successful in their field. Other advantages for learner motivation are the opportunities for creativity and flexibility in solving real-world, openended problems.

The instructor seeks to tap into the learner’s interest in the content, as well as the different styles and ways people learn. Open-ended questions focus on student-centered learning instead of recall and in turn, promote group work. At the higher education level, it is important to make learners more aware of:

  • What information they already know about the topic/problem;
  • What information they need to solve the problem and;
  • What strategies they must employ in solving the problem.

For each question, a Socratic questioning technique will enhance and expand critical thinking skills (Skinner, 2009). As the learners develop these critical thinking skills, they evolve into better self-directed learners and more effective problem solvers. It is crucial that the instructors play the guide role in helping learners clarify and focus their efforts by using exploration, collaboration and inquiry strategies. When leveraging technology tools, the instructors should avoid digital tools that are more entertainment based. The tools must enhance the learning environment, or the mere novelty may distract and eventually bore the learners.

Breaking down open-ended problem learning

In this narrative technique, the problem drives the motivation and learning, which requires the instructor to present the problem first, rather than providing instruction on relevant content and then having the learners apply knowledge to solve the problem. The instructor could introduce the problem with a mini lecture to give context to the problem and identify areas of potential difficulty. After the instructor has delivered the problem to the learners, the quest begins and the learners have a series of critical-thinking milestones they must complete. They must complete the following tasks:

  1. Explore and define the problem presented to them.
  2. Brainstorm what they already may know about any issues relating to the problem.
  3. Determine what they need to learn/research where can they find this information, what tools do they need to solve the problem.
  4. Brainstorm the possible ways to solve this problem.
  5. Solve the problem.
  6. Report on the solution, any barriers they encounter and findings of the problem.

The flexibility of open-ended problems can range in length of time required, from a class to a semester.

Organising and digitalising open-ended problem instruction

Most disciplines can improve student learning by using this method of instruction. One of the most important aspects is committing the time and energy to the development of the project, especially developing the bulk of the project up-front. Another key is to create a problem that will really grab the learner’s attention and be meaningful in their knowledge development. The instructor must select a meaningful problem topic that is going to immediately spark the desire to learn and determine the learning outcomes for the project. What does the instructor want the learners to know and/or to be able to do at the end of the assignment?

The fun begins with the creation of the problem to be addressed by the students. The most effective problems at the higher education level revolve around a real-world situation that the learners may encounter in their respective career paths or lives. Curiosity alone will drive the learners to want to have a solution if the problem is real and meaningful.

Next the instructor should think about the plan to break students up in groups if this is to be a group activity. Will the instructor organise groups in an arbitrary manner, manually select the participants, or let the learners choose? Once the students are in groups, how/when will the instructor distribute the materials? Depending on the mode of delivery, i.e., instructor led introduction, manually passing out materials, or audio/visual tools used, the instructor will want to prepare a list of assignments that are labelled by group and show all members of each group.

Depending on the level of learners, an MP3 audio recording could provide instructions, which they could play back to make sure they caught all the details. The instructor could implement free and easy-to-use audio/video screen capture tools to voice over a Prezi or PowerPoint, such as, or

Next, the instructor should determine where this lesson will best be delivered. Should the instructor reserve a computer lab or a conference room with tables? Do they need to have a virtual conference tool and training for how to use it?

If this lesson is face-to-face, the instructor should plan for how to immediately put them in groups. Will the instructor label their chairs prior to their entering the room? Will they post the groups on the board and have them report to designated areas of the room? If the instructor uses a videoconferencing tool like, they will need to set up group chat rooms ahead of time.

The instructor should consider how the learners interact as they discuss and work through the problem. To engage them digitally in a distance/blended setting, the instructor could use a tool like, where the learners can collaborate by adding images, audio/video and documents. Each learner can add content and comment on the work of peers to engage and create a path to a resolution. Even if the learners are in a classroom setting for part of this instruction, they can use a graphic organiser like to brainstorm and then organise their thoughts.


The instructor must also think about how to assess the group progress at regular intervals and then how to steer them back onto the desired path. To finalise the project, the instructor must determine how the learners will present their results. They may use many technology tools to create their final presentations. The learners will need time to create these presentations, whether they use technology or a face-to-face method. Technology gives the learners a chance to create a more professional presence and a more realistic experience for their future careers.

Finally, the instructor must plan how to evaluate and assess this project. Will the learners perform a peer review of the other group solutions? Will the instructor have a rubric to share ahead of time that will focus their efforts? The instructor will need to discuss this assessment when giving the initial instructions, so that all learners will be aware of the expectations for the project.

Since the instructor is striving to make a realistic project for the learners, the assessment should be authentic as well. If the instructor uses a list of requirements to be met, they should structure the assessment so that the students know what to display to demonstrate their understanding of the problem and solution. Letter grades are not enough; the instructor needs to provide detailed feedback about each learner’s strengths and weaknesses and contributions to the project.

If the instructor incorporates a peer review or assessment by other groups, they must consider what they want the students to ascertain from this exercise. Peer ratings can reveal what other students thought about the solution and skills displayed, but that should not determine a large percentage of the grade. If each group simulates a panel of investors or a think tank, it could add realism to the experience as they rate the solution based on whether they think it is the best option possible. A peer review could also simply be a scale that rates each member by attendance, listening skills, communication skills, ability to bring new information to the group, and working well with other members.

The instructor should brainstorm possible challenges and adjust the lesson after each use. In addition, the instructor should prepare extra materials, groups lists, etc as he/she plans for the worst-case scenario. As the instructor and the learners combine instructional tools to problem solve, they will grow more comfortable trying new tools. Many open source technology tools are worth consideration for this kind of project to enhance the learning environment and promote critical thinking skills.

This article originally appeared in Training & Development journal June 2018 Vol 45 No 2, published by the Australian Institute of Training and Development. Click here for more information.

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