Open-Ended Problems

An Open-Ended problem is an activity designed to learn course content within the framework of a realistic problem. These are particularly well suited for courses whose main thrust is to help students develop the capacity for critical thinking and analysis. While Open-Ended problems are primarily preformed in groups, it is not to be confused with group work. The structure of the problem set and the indented outcomes are unique to this method.

Time Consideration

Project Design: Incorporating stories in the popular press or real world examples will help your students associate their contextual knowledge and allow them to form questions around a known paradigm.

Length: With any group assignments time for communication, research and compilation of resources will take time. Depending on the problem set the time required to finish will vary.

Alternatives: Topic immersion, case studies and standard group work are great alternatives if the intended outcomes of open-ended problems do not suit your needs.

Tip: Follow along the group discussion thread and feel free to interject to clarify a stagnate discussion. For example, “You’re focusing to much on gender and not on ethnicity” will drive new question sets to be created within the group.

Skills Utilized

  • Critical Thinking
  • Analysis & Synthesis of Course Content
  • Collaboration
  • Researching topics and information design

Target Skills

  • Writing
  • Digital Literacy
  • Storytelling
  • Presenting findings
  • Researching
  • Team Work

Grading Criteria

  • Time Management
    • Completion of Deliverables
    • Organization
  • Collaborative Skills
    • Participation
    • Team Evaluations
  • Content
    • Written & Digital Literacy
    • Accuracy
    • Research & Evaluating Data

Getting Started

Sourcing Problems:

  • Research and Scholarly Articles
  • Stories in the popular press
  • Colleagues outside our disciplines
  • Problem sets, case studies and exams questions that we have written for our courses


  • Groups need to be semi- permanent
  • Small groups work best, four members is ideal
  • A diverse set of backgrounds works best
  • It’s ok to re-balance groups if necessary


  • Primarily on the results of the assignment.
  • Team-based evaluation of their group members.


Open-Ended problems challenge students by forcing them to identify what they know in relation to a problem, allowing the group to then focus on the aspects of the problem they do not understand. The group then decides which issues to consider in order of importance this is then delegated. Finally the groups integrate new knowledge in the context of the problem, making connections between previous and newly acquired knowledge; this process is repeated until the problem is satisfied.


Math Needs a Makeover

In this video professor Dan Meyer, illustrates an example of decoupling the formulaic method of traditional math education with real world examples. To achieve this, he provides his students with a video of a fish tank, slowly (very slowly) filling up with water. The students inevitably ask themselves, “how long will it take to fill?” That question triggers a though process connected to real world experience allowing non-traditional students the ability to participate at the same level as the students who excel at formulaic mathematics. One question leads to another, and by answering these in order of self-perceived importance the student empowers his or her self toward initiating the initiating question.

Congressional Internships

From: The Practice of Problem Based Learning

You have applied for several writing-intensive internships through the University of Rhode Island’s Office of Experiential Education, and you have been offered a position in the Rhode Island office of Congressman James Langevin. Because House of Representative terms are only two years, you assume you will be writing campaign materials. You have also been told that you will be working on a team with three or four other writing interns.

Questions for Team Discussion

  • Who is James Langevin? What do members of your team already know about him?
  • How long has he been in Congress? Who does he represent?
  • What issues seem to concern him most?
  • What constituent groups and platform have gotten him elected and reelected?
  • What has he done during his time in Congress?
  • What do different interest groups think of him so far?
  • What more do you need to learn about him?
  • Where can you go to learn more about him?