Fostering Student Choice and Decision Making

Those who do the work do the learning. If this maxim is true, how can we structure our classrooms so students have the power to make important choices about their learning without creating unnecessary chaos? How can they do more of the work while still relying on us for guidance?

When we give students the opportunity to make decisions about their learning process, they are more likely to form deep connections and practice higher-level thinking skills. According to Deci and Ryan as cited in Stefanou et al. (2004), students need “autonomy, competence, and relatedness…in social contexts” (p. 98) to learn and achieve self-determination. Students must actively construct their learning within intentional, social contexts. Students who feel they have some freedom over their learning are more likely to set “realistic goals, [determine] appropriate actions that accomplish goals, and [assess] progress toward the goals” whereas students who feel powerless to make their own decisions “lack volitional strategies and behaviors” (p. 98).

Choice alone does not guarantee student motivation. Students need the freedom to make choices that relate to their own lives and clearly connect to their immediate goals. Motivation theorists Patall et al. (2010) explain:

... choice may only be effective when it successfully satisfies fundamental needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. As such, having choice or the act of selecting alone is not enough to support motivation. Rather, choices need to be relevant to students’ interests and goals, provide a moderate number of options of an intermediate level of complexity, and be congruent with other family and cultural values in order to effectively support motivation (p. 898).

Because the types of choices we present to students significantly affect their level of motivation, consider how students might contribute to the choices provided in your class. Perhaps you provide two or three choices with an option for students to create their own proof of learning with your approval, for example.

Promoting Student Autonomy in Your Class

When examining the structure of your course, how might you incorporate one or more of the following approaches to promote student autonomy and greater motivation? Your answer may depend on your goals for the class and how you want students to transfer knowledge from your course into other contexts. Don’t feel you need to redesign your whole course or use all these ideas. Try out one or two, then make adjustments.

Students can demonstrate their learning through writing essays or reports, creating videos or podcasts, curating a portfolio, taking tests and quizzes, building models, giving presentations, etc. Provide a menu of choices for students to decide how they’d like to demonstrate their learning.

Students learn a lot from considering criteria to evaluate their work. Creating their own assessment criteria helps students think critically about the content they’re learning and how to illustrate that learning. Use student-created test questions, rubrics, or reflection questions when making your assessments.

Studies have shown that students retain less than 10% of what they hear during a lecture. By contrast, students retain 75% of what they learn by doing and 90% of the information they teach to others (Duderstadt, 2002, pp. 64–65).

    • Peer-to-Peer Teaching: when an expert student teaches a novice student. Peer tutors, teaching assistants, and mixed-skill cooperative learning groups are all examples of peer-to-peer teaching.
    • Peer Instruction: a “research-based teaching method that leverages the power of social interaction to drive learning” (Schell, 2013). Peer Instruction works best when students have been exposed to the content before class. Class time is spent clarifying the concepts through a seven-step process:
      1. Deliver a mini-lecture about an important concept.
      2. Pose a question.
      3. Give students time to think individually.
      4. Collect responses privately.
      5. Have students turn to a neighbor and try to convince them of their answer.
      6. Ask students to commit to a final answer, and collect those responses.
      7. Reveal the responses and the correct answer (if one exists), and facilitate a class-wide discussion about the answer and the reasoning behind it.
    • Jigsaw Teaching: a cooperative learning technique where each student studies one segment of the course content and teaches that segment to the other members of their peer group. The Jigsaw Classroom defines all ten steps.

Open Pedagogy is the practice of teachers using Open Educational Resources (OER) and students completing openly shareable, non-disposable assignments. Non-disposable assignments live on beyond the course and can be used by others in the future. They have an authentic audience and purpose beyond meeting the requirements of the course.

Implementing Flipped Learning

What is a flipped classroom? Flipped Learning moves content delivery such as lectures, readings, and other forms of information to students’ individual learning spaces so classroom time is spent engaging with the material in more active, applied ways. Students come to class with at least an introduction to the concepts they can use in creative ways, with their peers and instructor there to support learning. This interactive class time may take the form of group work, experimentation, debate, project work, scenario analysis, in-class presentations, service-learning, problem solving, etc.

According to the Flipped Learning Network, The Four Pillars of FLIP are as follows:

    • Flexible Environment: Group work, individual study, and project-based learning are all supported in a flexible learning environment.
    • Learning Culture: Learner-centered, the flipped classroom includes students in the active construction of knowledge through active, applied practice using new skills and concepts.
    • Intentional Content: The instructor carefully selects content and curates it in text, video, and other formats “to maximize classroom time in order to adopt methods of student-centered, active learning strategies.”
    • Professional Educator: In a flipped classroom, the instructor is a reflective practitioner, examining their own practices with the aim to improve them. The instructor observes students at work in order to provide feedback and guide them toward greater understanding of the content.

Duderstadt, J. J., Atkins, D.E., Van Houweling, D. E., & Van Houweling, D. (2002). Higher Education in the Digital Age: Technology Issues and Strategies for American Colleges and Universities. American Council on Education.

Patall, E. A., Harris, C., & Wynn, S. R. (2010). The Effectiveness and Relative Importance of Choice in the Classroom. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(4), 896–915.

Schell, J. (2013, August 26). The 6 most common questions about using Peer Instruction, answered. Turn to Your Neighbor.

Stefanou, C. R., Perencevich, K. C., DiCintio, M., & Turner, J. C. (2004). Supporting Autonomy in the Classroom: Ways Teachers Encourage Decision Making and Ownership. Educational Psychologist, 39(2), 97–110.