What happens when you give your students a choice

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A range of evidence shows the powerful impact on education outcomes when you give your students a real choice and control of their learning. Karen Sullivan looks at how.

An increasing wealth of research suggests that providing students with choices enhances their intrinsic motivation for undertaking tasks, overall performance on the task, and willingness to accept challenging tasks. Allowing students to make choices in the classroom equips them to make more discoveries about their own interests and, importantly, their personal process of making decisions.

This isn’t entirely new, of course. As far back as 1918, Kilpatrick introduced the child-centred learning project method, and suggested that when students are given control of their learning, learning becomes more purposeful. His research found that purposeful learning motivates a student to become more engaged.

In 1972, Piaget wrote: “Children should be able to do their own experimenting and their own research. Teachers, of course, can guide them by providing appropriate materials, but the essential thing is that in order for a child to understand something, he must construct it for himself; he must reinvent it. Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from re-interesting it for himself. That which we allow him to discover by himself will remain with him visible for the rest of his life.”

When students understand that they are in charge of their feeling, thinking and learning behaviours, they are more likely to take responsibility for their learning. To be autonomous learners, students need to have some choice and control. A recent study found that when students were given choices, they felt more interested and confident in their homework and scored higher on unit tests.

In her 2010 paper, Leesa C Lynch notes: “Giving students opportunities to make choices in high school prepares them for the autonomy they will amass in the years after their matriculation. Classrooms founded upon principles of quality between students and teachers establish respect. Furthermore, respecting other people’s choices and beliefs is a skill that will make students better communicators.”

There is an important codicil to this, however, and that is the number of choices offered. In 2000, researchers Iyengar and Lepper provided two groups of college students a weekend assignment to write a two-page essay for extra credit. The first group was given the choice of six topics, the second was given 30.

They found that the students with fewer choices were more likely to turn in the assignment and write better essays. They concluded that too many choices may actually demotivate students by causing too much angst over whether they’ve chosen the right topic or making them expend all of their mental energy on deciding what to do, rather than actually doing the project well.

Other research suggests that teachers should offer further choices to younger, less experienced students, choosing between two to three topics. However, choices can be expanded over the course of several months to encourage independent learning and to sustain motivation (a maximum of five or six choices is advised).

It is also important to avoid “superficially different choices”, which will not be effective. One of the researchers warned that “it has to feel like a sincere choice”. She adds that teacher collaboration can help to make this type of approach less onerous, noting that “a group of teachers could individually plan assignments on the same content, and then offer all options to students and help each other with grading the results”.

Choice appears to be something on the wane within the new national curriculum. However, what you do within your own lessons can reap results, particularly at this time of year when students are experiencing battle fatigue and a nudge is necessary to push them to aim high in their exams. Any ideas?

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email kesullivan@aol.com


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