Engaging Students with Open-Ended Problem Learning

student centered learning venn diagram

As instructors strive to implement meaningful content into their courses, an innovative option is open-ended problem learning. This instruction encourages focus on solving an open-ended problem using pre-existing knowledge and experience while applying newly acquired information. As a result, they develop content understanding and key critical thinking skills (Athreya and Mouza, 2017). This narrative technique also maintains learner interest and motivates them to creatively solve real-world problems to be successful in their chosen field.

Organizing Instruction

In this process, the problem drives the motivation and the learning. The instructors clearly present the problem to give context and identify potential difficulty for the learners (Skinner, 2009). It is crucial for the instructors to guide the learners to clarify and focus their efforts by using exploration and inquiry strategies. The instructor should select a project that really grabs the learner’s attention and sparks the desire to learn. The most effective problems revolve around real-world situations that the learners may encounter in their respective career paths or daily lives.

After the instructors deliver the problem, then the quest begins, and the learners must complete a series of critical-thinking milestones. As instructors ask open-ended questions, they focus on student-centered learning that promotes collaboration in the project. If the problem is real and meaningful, curiosity may also drive the learners to want to have a solution. Open-ended problem learning offers flexibility to the instructor because it can vary in the required length of time.

people problems solutions goals


Instructors should consider how the learners interact as they discuss and work through the problem. To engage them digitally in a distance or blended setting, the instructor could use a tool like VoiceThread, where the learners can collaborate by adding images, audio/video, and documents. The learners can add content and also comment on the work of their peers to engage and create a path to a resolution. Other educational tools can also be used in assessment.

Problem Learning Assessment

Since the instructors are striving to make a realistic project for the learners, the assessment should be authentic as well. If the instructors use 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 the solution. Letter grades are not enough; the instructors need to provide detailed feedback about the learners’ strengths and weaknesses as well as their contribution to the project.

To assist learners in their project completion, instructors could implement free and easy-to-use audio/video screen capture tools to voice over a Prezi or PowerPoint, such as Screencast-o-matic or Jing. As the instructors and the learners combine instructional tools to solve problems, they will grow more comfortable in 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 is an excerpt from: Bair, R., & Bair, B. T. (2018). Open-ended problem learning. Australian Institute of Training and Development, 45(2), 20-21.


  • Athreya, B. H., & Mouza, C. (2017). Thinking skills for the digital generation: The development of thinking and learning in the age of information. Springer International Publishing. ProQuest Ebook Central. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/miami/detail.action?docID=4772353
  • Skinner, D. (2009). Introduction to decision analysis: A practitioner’s guide to improving decision quality, (3rd ed.). Gainesville, FL: Probabilistic Publishing.

Beth Teagarden Bair was an Instructional Designer at FIU Online with over eighteen years of experience in instructional design and classroom teaching. She has developed and delivered traditional, online, and hybrid instruction at all instructional levels, with a strong passion for authentic learning, experiential learning, and student engagement. Her areas of expertise include leadership, educational technology, literacy, service learning, and global learning. She promotes innovative online teaching strategies, student agency, and best practices.

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