Giving Students a Choice in Assignments Can Boost Creativity and Motivation

Teaching to students’ strengths and interests can promote creative and critical thinking. But requesting creative responses often engenders the exact opposite of creativity. “Just tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it.” “How many words does it need to be?” “What should I write about to get a good grade?” “I’m not creative.” Often these comments are accompanied with sighs, groans, or no responses at all (in the case of online students), indicating just how much students resist when asked to be creative. And these responses are even more prevalent in required and prerequisite courses. So how do we overcome the resistance and encourage creative ideas and thinking from our students?

Creativity has been described as the inclination to generate or recognize and communicate ideas and possibilities when solving problems. Students become creatively motivated when allowed to solve problems, find novel and varied stimulation, and communicate ideas and/or values. I’ve designed and used with some success a semester-long personal preference project assignment. To illustrate how these work, I’ll use the assignment students complete in a required special education survey course I teach.

Personal preference project assignment—tiered assignment:

Students may select one of the projects listed below or generate their own project concepts. They may work independently or in small groups. The project must be completed and presented to the class at the end of the course. The content of the project must reflect the course learning outcomes as well as professionally specified standards. Topics that may be considered include IDEA and No Child Left Behind, differentiated instruction, collaboration, standardized assessment, advocates for students with disabilities, inclusion vs. resource instructional settings, parent rights and responsibilities, response to intervention, or any topic that addresses the course’s learning outcomes. Students submit their topic choices for approval in the second week of class.

Possible project selection:

  • Research paper (one per student)
  • Classroom debate (four to six students—two or three pro/two or three con)
  • Website analysis and Web page construction (one per student)
  • Literature group (two books)—(three or four students per group)
  • Podcast (two students)
  • Documentary with oral or written interviews (one or two students)
  • Simulated YouTube video (one per student)
  • Differentiated instruction unit (one or two students for each project)
  • Open for student suggestion (one or two students)

Project requirements: Other projects details are presented in course syllabus materials.

Presentations: Presentation dates are determined by class lottery. Dates for the presentations are placed in a paper bag and each student draws his or her date from the bag. Presenters must conduct a 30-minute interactive lesson. The common thread that provides continuity among the projects is the required focus on course content. Each presentation demonstrates the results of individual or group research through a student-created, innovative, interactive, learner-centered format.

Due dates: Because this is a term-long project, specific due dates that update project progress and student self-reflections are scheduled throughout the semester.

Evaluation: Project evaluation rubrics and a presentation rubric are included in course syllabus materials.

Two key features add to the success of this assignment. Student progress needs to be monitored and grading criteria need to be clear. Creative juices flow when there is a structure that students understand and can follow. Criteria for each product or performance is necessary to reduce student stress, meet learning outcomes, and increase productivity. Each project has a separate rubric tailored to fit its unique characteristics. Criteria are then discussed during a scheduled office meeting to confirm project clarity, expectations, and student ideas. The instructor and student(s) determine if adjustments to the pre-established rubric and project concept are necessary at that time.

Dan Pink, in his 2006 book A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, indicates that autonomy, mastery, and purpose are qualities that motivate learners and result in achievement. Isn’t this what we desire for our students? When students are asked to interpret, construct, and demonstrate their own concepts or ideas regarding specific course concepts from a selection of product or performance options, content retention, commitment, motivation, and creativity increase. At least that’s what’s happened in my courses, and those outcomes are consistent with the principles of effective course design.

Reprinted from Promoting Student Choice. The Teaching Professor, 26.7 (2012): 3.