November 29th, 2017

Benefits of Giving Students Choices

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making choices - door 1, 2 or 3

We already do give students some choices. We let them choose paper topics, decide what to do for group projects, select subjects for artwork—and we’ve seen them struggle to make those choices. Most students don’t see selecting content as an opportunity to explore an area of interest, but rather an added burden of now trying to figure out what the teacher wants.

Teaching Professor Blog The bulk of what students must learn in a course can’t be their choice. In most fields, they don’t know what they need learn, but are there reasons to give them some choices about content?

Here’s a few things to consider.

  • Making content choices is part of what’s involved in being an independent, self-directed learner. Mature learners decide what to learn when they discover there’s something they need to know or something about which they need to know more. Sometimes curiosity drives them to the content. There’s a question that can’t be answered, an action that can’t be explained, or an idea that doesn’t make any sense.
  • Choosing what to learn involves skill. The content must be identified, questions about it framed, and content boundaries set. Many students lack the ability to do this. They come up with topics that are much too broad, projects that can’t possibly be completed by the due date, or what they decide to do doesn’t match the task they’ve been asked to complete.
  • Fortunately, making smarter choices is a skill that develops with practice. The more times the decisions are made, the easier they are to make, especially when there’s feedback and the opportunity to reflect. And with practice comes confidence. The requirement to make choices about what to learn moves students in the direction of reasoned decision-making rather than anguish over the imposition.
  • It has the potential to motivate. Getting to choose means getting to control a part of the learning process. If students can move beyond choosing what they think the teacher would like, it becomes a chance to pursue an area of interest or, at the very least, avoid boredom.
  • When students make a decision, they’re more likely to own it. Less blame can be put on the teacher if students don’t like what they’re learning. Making the decision about what to learn encourages students to accept more of the responsibility for learning.

What other decisions about what to learn could we give our students? How about these possibilities?

  • A choice about the areas of focus in a paper or project. If the paper or project has multiple parts, students could choose to give one of those parts a more prominent role in the paper or project.
  • A choice of exam questions. For in-class or online essay questions, each student generates a designated number questions, and the teacher selects one of those questions for the student to answer. The quality of the question becomes part of the grade.
  • A choice about what to read. Provided with a collection of readings on a topic, annotated with intriguing highlights, students select which one(s) they will read. Discussion then focuses on integration of the various readings and identification of major themes, issues, or ideas.
  • Choice on homework problems. Perhaps an easy, moderate, and challenging set of questions, each worth a different point value, possibly followed by a quiz that exposes anyone who simply copied the answers.

And what about when they don’t make good choices?
Herein lies the main reason teachers are hesitant to let student make choices, not just about what they learn but about any part of the learning process. And that creates a vicious cycle. Without many opportunities to make choices and without much experience doing so, students are ever more likely to make bad choices and teachers are ever more motivated to keep them from making those mistakes that are so common among novice learners.

This dilemma has two possible solutions. Let students make choices about learning where the consequences aren’t so dire, like short essays or in-class group projects. From there move on incrementally to choices that are more challenging. Secondly, a poor choice is an opportunity to learn. Students learn from mistakes when they realize they’ve made one and when they confront alternatives that are better options.

Please be welcome to share below any decisions you let students make about content and how doing so affects their learning.


  • sgjones

    Thank you for this post Maryellen. One of the challenges in allowing students to make choices is the relative lack of coordination across courses throughout a student’s curriculum. For example, I have found that many faculty members teaching capstone and other upper-division courses are frustrated when they provide students with opportunities to make choices for which the students are unprepared or find that the students lack the skills necessary to follow-through on the choices they make. If students had multiple, progressive opportunities to exercise choices across their curricula, they would be better prepared to determine the best options for achieving their learning goals as they develop. Frequently, the academic advising that students receive also undermines students’ ability to make choices. My institution, like many others, provides students with a wide range of courses through which students can complete general education requirements. However, students are often advised to take particular courses even if the student may not be particularly interested in the course or the topics it covers.

    If we truly want students to develop as self-directed learners, I think we need to do a better job of coordinating options across their major courses and allow them to connect their personal interests to meeting general education requirements.

  • Angela McLean

    A well-timed read for me! Our Management Capstone course includes a Leadership project that the student must choose, plan, execute, and assess. I agree – it is very frustrating to see students struggle with the choice aspect. Some never make it successfully through that phase. I will need to think about how to identify and provide choice opportunities in other classes that lead to our capstone.

  • Laura Shulman

    I have experimented with giving students choices for one or more assignments worth a given percent of their course grade. These “student options” were worth 15% of the grade. I provided a list of ideas to choose from, designed to appeal to different interests and learning styles. Some options were more involved than others. These options may have been worth the full 15% while the simplest/easiest options were worth just 1% each. Others worth 5% or 10% each. Students were to choose one or more totaling 15% of their grade.
    Needless to say, many students did not choose/do enough of these assignments and some did not do any of them. I think some of them thought that calling them “student options” meant they were “optional”. That was not the intent. I am afraid that there were just too MANY options to choose from. Students may have been overwhelmed when faced with a choice.
    Needless to say, the experiment failed and I no longer do this. Though I might allow a student to choose to do some “extra credit” assignment in place of some other assignment. Typically, it seems easier for students to just focus on what is required. They may just completely neglect an assignment they do not like without choosing an “alternative” option.
    I just don’t get it – why would they NOT want to choose their own assignments (from a list provided by the professor) when given the choice? Is making decisions really that challenging a task?

  • Gonzalo Munevar

    I have the feeling that I am missing something. Almost 50 years ago, when I was student, I chose my own topics to write on in practically all my midterm and final papers. The same happened in my doctoral studies. That was 100% of the course grade. Once I became a professor, I made sure my students did the same, although it was for 80% of the course grade, since I gave 20% to class performance. I often taught science courses as well. Students working in small groups would design experiments for their midterm and carry them out for their final. Of course, l gave them advice and guidance, but we always worked from their choices. In all that time it never occurred to me that giving students choices would be a problem.

    • Linda Celet Bane

      Sometimes the less motivated, less skilled students have problems choosing. This may be a personal bias (don’t flame me – I said personal bias), but as a former bio major and current librarian, I would say that most STEM students have lots curiosity and motivation, and therefore, find it easier to pick topics.

      One of our core values at WVU-PSC is curiosity and we strive to foster that and give students choices, but sometimes they struggle with it. Maybe it’s because they have low self-esteem and don’t think the teacher will think it’s good enough, or maybe they are seeing the degree as just a hoop to jump through to get a good job, or maybe it’s because they haven’t found their passion yet.

      We have a lot of general studies majors. They aren’t sure what they want to study or do with their lives. That may also play into it. I try to give them a list of topics with the caveat that if there is a topic they want to do that’s not on the list, they can (with prior approval).

      In the past decade, I’ve heard so much about teaching to the test in high school from students and teachers, that it seems that, for many of them, there has been no chance to explore or to choose. I’m hoping that it is changing.

      • Gonzalo Munevar

        The professor should approve all projects before the students begin to develop them. Sometimes the projects may be too large in scope, or too unfocused, or unsuitable for some other reason. The professor can then help guide the student as they discuss possible topics.