5 Ways Student Choice Impacts Learning

By AJ Juliani, 14 comments

This is the first post in the “Innovative Teaching Challenge” series. Get each challenge delivered to your inbox by signing up here.

I spent a lot of time as a teacher figuring out new ways to inspire and motivate my students. Sometimes it worked, but often I would fail to reach all of them. Then one day I gave my students choice. Not some “fake choice” assignment where they could pick one topic out of a box of topics…but REAL choice. You know what happened? Students were inspired and motivated to learn by themselves…and by each other. And they did a much better job at inspiring then I ever could. Choice gives students the ability to go above and beyond our curricular limitations…try to give as much choice as possible and watch your students innovate.

That choice came in the form of the “20% Project“. They could learn whatever they wanted to learn in my class…with no real limitations. It was extremely difficult for some students, and for others it was very natural. However, the real magic happened when the students began exploring and learning about their “choices” during class time.

As a teacher I noticed some ways that choice impacted the learning process. Normally, we tell students what they are going to learn, then give them resources and materials to learn (sometimes created by us, sometimes created by others), then check for understanding, and provide feedback and help as needed.

This project was different because:

a) Students picked their learning topic and end goal

b) Students pre-defined what they would consider a successful learning outcome

c) In most cases I knew nothing about the topic they chose (i.e. I’m an English teacher and they chose to rebuild a car engine)

I was no longer the person with the most knowledge on the subject in the room, so I had to act fast and help in other ways. Pointing them in the direction of strong research and mentoring opportunities. Giving feedback on their blogging. Helping in the learning process (I was learning as well). And finally, giving them a final push towards some type of making/creating/building aspect of their project.

There were five specific ways student choice impacted the learning going on in my classroom:

1. Choice improves student buy-in

In the beginning of the project it was a challenge to get every student to actually choose a topic. Some wanted me to just give them a worksheet and tell them what they needed to do. However, once we got past this obstacle…the buy-in was already there. Students cared about what they were doing because they CHOSE what they were doing. If they wanted to complain about their topic, I would let them switch to a new one so the buy-in would always remain the same.

2. Choice puts the responsibility back in the students’ hands

At the same time, the students knew that I was not the “expert” on their chosen topic. I didn’t know much about learning sign-language so my responsibility as a teacher changed. Students could no longer come to me expecting an answer, but had to come to me expecting help in finding the answer. I was still the “lead learner” in my class, but I was learning alongside my students and not doing it for them. The learning responsibility was firmly on their shoulders.

3. Choice allows for flexibility

If you’ve ever done a “passion project” or wrote your own story, song, etc….then you know that things change. The idea we initially started out with gets reworked and twisted into something completely new. Because I did not give requirements and deadlines with what they needed to complete…this project allowed for complete flexibility. Choice drove the students’ actions and gave some room for lots of little (and sometimes big) changes along the way.

4. Choice embraces current and new passions

To be honest, I didn’t expect so many students to have no idea what they were interested or passionate about. However, this project allowed students to find new passions and new interests—as well as embrace their current passions. This is important because they did not need to start with base knowledge…but they also could start with base knowledge. That meant for many students they were just beginning to learn about this topic, and for others it was something they had been doing for many years. Choice put students on very different learning continuums during the project, but as we saw with the final presentations…this did nothing to limit the overall learning.

5. Choice leads to growth

Ultimately, choice consistently lead to growth. Because of the above factors, choice became a way for students to create their own learning path…and assess how much they had learned. Almost every student came out of this project saying they had not only learned something new, but also been excited to grow through the process.

It was not always easy for the students, or for me as the teacher, but choice brought out the best in all of us.

Innovative Teaching Challenge #1: Try to find a small way you can give your students choice in their learning this week. It does not need to be an entire project, but instead can start with a daily activity. Give your students choice and see how they respond. Ask them about the difference in learning something they chose versus something that was picked for them. Let us know how it goes in the comments!

Photo Credit: Darren Shilson via Compfight cc

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