Student Choice: Not Always a Good Thing

11.06_student-choice-not-always-a-good-thing

I once worked with an institution that decreed that its online courses must be set up so that students have a choice of the order in which they take the modules in the course. All modules were required, but they had to be constructed so that none depended on students’ having gone through a prior module. When I asked about the reason for this rule, I was simply told that “students want choice; they don’t want to be told what to do.”


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I once worked with an institution that decreed that its online courses must be set up so that students have a choice of the order in which they take the modules in the course. All modules were required, but they had to be constructed so that none depended on students’ having gone through a prior module. When I asked about the reason for this rule, I was simply told that “students want choice; they don’t want to be told what to do.”

But while students may want choice in their shoe color, their major, and their program electives, I have never met a student who cared about choosing the order of required modules in their course. Neither has anybody else I’ve asked. If I am taking an art history course, does it matter to me that I have a choice to study Michelangelo before DaVinci or vice versa? When I took a canoe paddle–making class, I trusted the instructor to pick the order of topics that made the most sense for my learning. Why would I think I know better than the instructor when I am paying for the course precisely because the instructor knows more about the topic than I do?

The larger issue this institution’s reasoning missed is that education is a guided journey through a topic, not just a scattergun shot of disconnected information. The decision to require student choice meant that course topics needed to be independent of one another. A module could not refer to a prior module, because designers could not know the order in which students were taking the modules. The result was a fragmented and incoherent curriculum that undermined student learning.

“Student choice” has become a rallying cry in higher education over the past few years, but that call is often made without thought to whether the choice actually improves learning. Students do not always want a choice, and even when they do, that does not necessarily mean that the choice will improve their learning. It might undermine learning. While the above example is an one, it demonstrates how terms like “choice” can become vague platitudes that lose their tether to reality during application. Let’s take a look at different forms of student choice to ask the hard questions about whether we can be certain that they improve learning.

Choice of content modality

Student choice has been applied to two areas: course content and assessments. HyFlex courses give students the option of seeing lectures either face-to-face or streamed online. By contrast, online courses can offer students the same learning content in different modalities: text, audio, and video.

Convenience and preference are given as reasons for offering students choice. Someone choosing the streaming video option for a lecture can watch it from home rather than have to come to a fixed location. Plus, students might prefer to get content in one modality rather than other.

HyFlex courses certainly save time for working adults who live off campus and must commute to class. But that’s much less the case for traditional students living on, or just off, campus and who generally spend the day on campus anyway for their other classes and to study at a library. Plus, many faculty report having difficulty managing face-to-face and distance students at the same time in a HyFlex class, the result being that each group gets less attention than it would have otherwise.

Moreover, it is not clear that giving students a choice of content modality means they will choose what is best for their learning. They might opt for convenience instead. For example, a student might choose the audio version of course content so they can listen while driving to the mall or work, even though that means splitting their attention between the road and the content and being unable to take notes. In addition, choice in content modality is at odds with the supposed importance of reading skills as a higher education learning outcome. I think we can safely assume that students have their video-watching skills down pat; maybe they would get a better education through text-heavy course content, especially if reading will be integral to their future jobs.

It also bears mention that instructors who offer choice in content modality must do a lot more work to create the same content in text, audio, and video versions. It is not simply a matter of making a video, saving the audio for an audio-only version, and then posting a transcript for the text version. Each communication mode has its own conventions and thus needs to be made individually in light of those. An instructor could put that extra development time into one-on-one meetings with students or other activities related to learning. Offering students a choice must have clear and significant benefit that outweighs the costs of using that time for another learning purpose.

Commentators have also called for student choice of assessments. Instead of a written paper, students could have the option of doing a journal, an online discussion, or a video. These commentators report that students enjoy having the choice, but once again, we need to ask how it improves learning. Writing skills are usually given as one of the central learning outcomes of higher education and one of the skills employers most value. If that’s the case, does allowing students to do nonwritten assessments actually hurt them in the long run? A film major might pick the video option because filmmaking comes easy to them, but requiring them to write papers in non-filmmaking courses—to work on their weaknesses rather than their strengths—might serve them better. Journaling is a good way to initiate introspection, but will it be more useful career prep than writing a sustained, report-style analysis? Choice may actually deprive students of a needed education.

Variety of required options

So far, I have just been raising questions that instructors need to ask when thinking about implementing student choice in their courses. An instructor might have good justifications for providing students with choices, and that is fine. I am suggesting only that student learning should be the ultimate basis for everything in higher education.

Higher education is fundamentally about stretching into unfamiliar territory. Doing what you are already good at is not the best form of learning. For instance, general education requirements are for giving students a well-rounded education. Student enjoyment is a common justification for giving options, but perhaps learning to persist at something that is not particularly enjoyable is an important life skill. Will students enjoy everything their future jobs require them to do?

An alternative to student choice is requiring assessments in different modalities across a course. A class with three assessments might require the first to be a written paper, the second a video, and the third an online discussion. Each would teach the student to communicate in a different modality they might be called upon to use in their careers. As mentioned, different mediums have different communication principles, and thus communicating about the same subject in different media can be an excellent way to learn about those principles. A philosophy class that requires students to communicate a philosopher’s position by text, video, and audio stretches students into different areas of communication. A variety of required options, rather than choice, might produce more learning that allowing students to focus only on those media that they are most familiar with.