My favorite moments of teaching are when I get to see students attack an open ended challenge! Facilitating the learning process as they develop their code or build their prototype is exciting in the STEM, STEAM, or coding classroom. Who wouldn’t love watching students get that puzzled look on their face as they brainstorm and think through a challenge?
Offering open ended challenges allows us as teachers to take a step back and let our students take charge of their learning. We get to truly be a facilitator and push our students to think outside of the box while also continuing to check for understanding of background knowledge.
We’ve given you some of the benefits of open ended challenges for teachers, but what about for students?
Creating open ended challenges has many benefits for students! We’ve put together our top 5 benefits of open ended challenges and some quick tips for creating your own open ended challenges. Let’s dive in!
1. Increases Student Engagement
This first benefit is huge because as teachers, we know that student engagement is the best way to make sure our students learn and retain information. The more engaged our students are in their learning, the more likely they will remember the content.
Open ended challenges naturally increase student engagement because students get to come up with a solution to the challenge in their own way. They get to choose how they want to respond to the challenge and what they want to create to demonstrate their learning. Students take ownership with these challenges because everything is on them – it’s truly their challenge and their opportunity to make the content their own. Autonomy is key.
This freedom to choose what they create, how they create, and what materials they use, also limits inhibitions they may have had and takes the pressure off of them. This in turn, opens them up to new possibilities which brings us to our second benefit – students exercise their creativity.
2. Exercises Creativity
We want our students to be creative, we want them to think outside of the box, and we get excited- at least I know I do – when we see students come up with their own way of demonstrating their learning. Students bring their own experiences, backgrounds, and opinions into the classroom – they have their own way of thinking. This plays into their creativity and when they are given an open ended challenge we begin to pull this creativity out of them.
Posing open ended challenges in STEM, STEAM, and coding builds and exercises creativity. Most of the assignments we give in the classroom have a specific answer or there might be a specific way to demonstrate understanding and knowledge of the content. With open ended challenges we are reminding our students that there are tons of possibilities to solve problems. We’re teaching them that there isn’t just one way to solve a problem, while encouraging all of our students to come up with their own way of solving a problem.
The only option to successfully completing an open ended challenge is for students to be creative and to use their background knowledge, their experiences, and their way of thinking to come up with a solution. In the STEM, STEAM, or coding classroom, students can express their creativity through prototypes or creative code. Pushing students to express their individual creativity, background knowledge, and way of thinking, allows them to grow and learn in ways a normal classroom sometimes doesn’t allow.
3. Developmentally Appropriate & Differentiated
Our challenge as teachers is to make sure that our students are growing throughout the year while also making sure that we are providing them with differentiated assignments. We have to make sure that we are raising the levels of difficulty for each individual student but not so much that they begin to shut down.
Creating an open ended challenge is a great way to meet students where they are at, while still pushing for their growth. The open ended challenge allows students to respond to it in the way they choose. Students will naturally feel as though they can rise to the challenge and come up with their own solution because they can do it however they choose. For both your struggling students and your high flyers, the open ended challenge removes pressure and unveils where students truly are in the learning process. Students will use tools and background knowledge they have mastered to respond to the challenge. You can decide to push them even further if you notice they didn’t push themselves.
4. Collaboration & Growth by Learning from Others
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I love when I get to hear students share out what they created. This is honestly my favorite part of an open ended challenge. I always learn something new from my students and the students get a chance to learn from each other.
Collaboration allows students to thrive and to learn from their peers. With an open ended challenge, students can collaborate and work together or they can individually work on the challenge. Either way, your students will learn from each other and open their minds to new ways of thinking and possibilities.
While your students are working on the open ended challenge you can have them work in groups to brainstorm ideas and then allow them to complete the challenge as a group or to use the group brainstorm as a starting point of ideas for them to then complete the challenge individually. The brainstorming session gives everyone a chance to process the challenge and highlight the many different ways the challenge can be met. Another great way to keep students collaborating and learning from each other is to plan times for them to do group check-ins with each other throughout the length of the challenge. This would be a time to see where everyone is at and continue to get ideas for their challenge – not copy from each other.
Once students have finished creating their code it’s time for presentation day! Every student (or every group) will have a chance to share with the class what they created, how they created it, and why they created it. They should walk everyone through their process and explain how it meets the requirements of the open ended challenge. As the teacher you also get to see how much they learned and assess their learning.
5. Deeper Understanding of Topics
The ultimate goal of any assignment is to make sure that students understand the topics and standards being taught. The assignments given are meant to deepen understanding and provide practice for students. Open ended challenges in STEM, STEAM, or coding are perfect for making sure that students have a deeper understanding of the standard and topic that was taught.
Students learn best when they take ownership and when they are engaged in the learning process. We’ve been through the first four benefits of providing your students with open ended challenges and those four reasons are exactly why open ended challenges lead to a deeper understanding of content.
An open ended challenge pulls students in and engages them. You have taught the content, they have collaborated with their peers and contributed to academic conversations with their group, and now it’s time to deepen their understanding. When each student gets a chance to demonstrate their understanding of the content in a very hands-on way it activates their creativity, engagement, and ownership. On presentation day, you can feel confident that students have a deeper understanding because they have engaged with the content through the four main modalities – kinesthetic, visual, auditory, and tactile.
Open ended challenges add excitement for you as the teacher and for all of your students. It can be a scary instructional method to put into action in the classroom, but the benefits for students and their learning are huge. At SAM Labs we include chili challenges at the end of all of our lessons to promote exploration and ensure that our teachers experience these 5 benefits. We have also created maker challenges that aren’t tied to a specific lesson but provide open ended, exploratory challenges. We love to promote exploration and want to make sure that our teachers are able to challenge their students and feel comfortable doing so.
We’d love to hear from you! Are there other benefits that you would like to see added? Tell us!
Tag us on Twitter @SAMLabs and show us what your students have created with your open ended challenge! We would love to see it!
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Ashli is a science educator who has a passion for using EdTech tools in the classroom and for creating interactive learning experiences that allow all students to engage in higher level learning.