Open-Ended Questions vs. Close-Ended Questions: Which To Use When?

Open ended questions

Asking questions allow us to figure out what people want, what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling. But they aren’t merely sentences worded in ways that allow us to gain information. The way you ask a question, makes a big difference. In fact, if you ask the same question in different ways you will sometimes get completely different answers.

But you don’t have to be completely oblivious or out of the loop when it comes to questions, especially if someone asks you to differentiate between open-ended and close-ended ones. And that’s exactly why we’re here today. We’re going to guide you through the two types of questions that exist- we’ll explain what they are, how you can identify them, give you examples of each and tell you how you can or should use them in surveys.  And by the end of this article, you’ll be able to apply your new-found knowledge to create your own study or analysis.

What Is An Open-Ended Question?

An open-ended question is one that requires the responder to give a complete answer- and one that usually makes use of the responder’s thoughts and emotions. Unlike close-ended questions, open-ended ones do not lead responders to choose an answer. Instead, it allows the responder to select, create, or imagine whatever answer they want, because it’s how they feel, what they think happened and their preferences. In essence, an open-ended question is one that has no finite group of answers to choose from.

Open ended question example

Identifying An Open-Ended Question

Identifying an open-ended question may be a little more difficult than identifying a close-ended one, simply because their responses can be short and simple, even though they were designed to elicit a well-thought-out answer from the responder. To understand when you’re looking at an open-ended question, don’t answer the question itself, but ask yourself whether it can be answered broadly or with detail.

Also, ask yourself whether the question is trying to discover a fact (like a date or time), or whether the answer requires you to use your opinion, emotions or feelings to get an answer. Lastly, if the question allows room for an exchange to happen, in addition to the previous two requirements, then it is an open-ended question.

Open-Ended Questions in Surveys

When used in surveys, open-ended questions allow the researcher to find out information they were not exactly expecting. Because it lets responders go into depth, the researcher can better understand people’s feelings, concerns, attitudes and knowledge of the topic. They allow the responders to be more candid, which offers a unique kind of insight that cannot be given through yes or no or scaled questions.

Examples of Open-Ended Questions

Examples of open-ended questions include:

  1. What do you see yourself doing in the next five years?
  2. How are you planning on paying for college?
  3. Why is seeing this movie so important to you?
  4. Describe your relationship with your fellow employees.
  5. Explain what has been bothering you.

They usually begin with the words “why,” “how,” “what,” ”explain,” or “describe.”

Advantages and Disadvantages of Open-Ended Questions

Pros

  1. They allow an almost infinite number of answers
  2. Open-ended questions let responders go in depth when answering the questions
  3. They let us understand topics more deeply
  4. It allows the responder to feel more like the center of attention
  5. They make responders more comfortable because there are no wrong answers

Cons

  1. They’re not practical to use when talking to large groups
  2. Getting answers can take lots of time
  3. Those who are more eloquent and/or educated/cultured have the advantage when answering this type of question
  4. This type of question can easily intimidate responders
  5. It’s not easy to get the same level of detail from everyone who answers the questions

What Is A Close-Ended Question?

close ended question example

A close-ended question is one that is answered simply. Another way to describe it is that it’s a question that usually has the options, “yes” or “no.” Although they’re thought of as being straightforward because they can be answered relatively easily (as their answer options are very limited), that’s not always the case. You’ll see later in our examples how complicated they can actually get.

Identifying A Close-Ended Question

Identifying a close-ended question is pretty easy and it’s because its answers are limited. They’re usually answered by multiple choice options, rating scales (like scales of one to ten or “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”) and “yes” or “no.” These questions don’t give us nearly as much information as open-ended ones, but they can be helpful when writing exams and doing surveys. They tell us the either/or, and when or whether something will happen, but not the how or why.

Closed-Ended Questions in Surveys

Using close-ended questions in surveys can prove very useful. They are ideal for creating statistical information as there are only a few options to choose from. They make analyzing responses extremely easy because they are so clean. What that means is because there are not a multitude of different thoughts and feelings, but just a select group of limited options, grouping like responses takes little to no time. They are perfect for creating quantitative data.

Examples of Close-Ended Questions

Examples of close-ended questions include:

  1. When is your birthday?
  2. Will you eat pizza tonight?
  3. Did you enjoy going to high school?
  4. Do you know what water is made up of?
  5. Are you an only child?

They usually begin with the words “are,” “will,” “won’t,” “did,” “do,” or “was.”

Advantages and Disadvantages of Close-Ended Questions

Pros

  1. They’re easy to answer
  2. They provide facts
  3. Answers from different people are easier to compare
  4. It makes answering sensitive subjects easier
  5. They allow the one asking the questions to maintain control of the conversation

Cons

  1. An answer may not be a choice of the responder
  2. These questions almost force people to make a choice
  3. They allow people to give sometimes too simple answers to complicated issues
  4. They get quite confusing if too many answer options are available
  5. It’s difficult to realize when someone misunderstands or misinterprets a question

When To Use Each Kind of Question

Remember that in surveys, close-ended questions allow for the collection of quantitative information, while open-minded ones give insight that allows managers and business owners to empathize with their employees and customers.

Also, note that the same thing can be asked with an open or close-ended question and each version will elicit two types of responses. For example, asking someone if they’re having a fun time or how they are feeling at the moment is almost the same thing, but one gives a lot more information than the other.

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