Giving Students Choices

What about letting students make some choices about learning the content in our courses? Most of us already do at least a bit of that. We let them decide on paper topics, what they want to create or perform, or whether they will do optional homework problems. Some of us offer more; we let them decide whether they’ll write a paper or take an exam, whether they’ll complete a closed-book or take-home test, or how much their quizzes or participation will count within a designated range.

Those of us who give students choices do so for several reasons. First, it’s a way to foster engagement and increase motivation. When students select a topic, they’re likely to pick something they find at least a little bit interesting. When they select how they will learn content, via an exam or by writing about it, they get to showcase their knowledge via a method that plays to their strengths as learners. Being confronted with decisions about how to learn something can help students make discoveries about themselves as learners. Choice also develops independent learning skills. Students are used to teachers making many of the learning decisions for them, which is part of what makes students very dependent learners.

But can you give students too many choices? That was one of several questions explored in a recent set of studies done in a marketing program. The researchers asked students in an introductory marketing class about a hypothetical retailing management course. One cohort was shown a list of 20 firms and told that in the course they would be developing a business plan for one of these firms. They would get to pick the firm; this was the high-choice option. A second cohort was given a list of five firms and told they’d do the same assignment and they could select one of these five firms, the low-choice option. A third group was told they would do the assignment and be assigned a firm, the no-choice option.

The researchers hypothesized that 1) students in the high-choice cohort would find this hypothetical course more “desirable”; 2) they’d think instructors who offered choices were “better”; 3) they’d perceive the course with options as being more “valuable” to their careers; 4) they’d experience more “positive emotions” in the course with choices; and 5) they wouldn’t experience significantly different levels of “negative emotions.” (p. 224) And that’s pretty much what they found. “Thinking about having many choice options for the assignment was clearly motivating for the students. It increased perceived satisfaction with and desire for the hypothetical course, and led to increased confidence that the course would be valuable to employers and for the students’ future careers. It also increased the students’ perceptions that they would like the instructor.” (p. 228)

But there was a second study, and the results were different. In that study, the procedures were the same, with three cohorts given different levels of choice on the assignment, only this time students in the two choice cohorts were asked to choose the firm for which they would develop a business plan and offer (in writing) two reasons why they chose that firm. “When engaged in an actual choice, students in Study 2 did not prefer the higher level of choice.” (p. 227) “An implication of these findings is that students … appear to want many choices while still evaluating from a distance. However, they may find that they do not like a high level of choice when actually confronted with decision making.” (p. 229) This finding was true for students who were interested in marketing. Students not interested in marketing actually preferred no choice.

With choice comes responsibility, and that responsibility is experienced more at the point of decision than before it. If the instructor picks the firm, the paper topic, and the group project, then it’s easier for students to blame the instructor when they don’t do well. “I can’t write good essay answers, and that’s what we have to do in this class.” But if students make the decisions, they are more directly responsible for their performance. In addition, because most students haven’t had much experience making decisions in courses, they don’t feel particularly confident, so they worry about making a “wrong” decision. “What if I pick a firm the teacher doesn’t like?”

There are a host of developmental issues involved in allowing students to make choices. As this research shows, too many choices can be overwhelming. If students feel overwhelmed, the various benefits gained by giving them choices are lessened. It is to an instructor’s benefit to know how the level of choice being given to students is affecting their attitudes, motivation, and learning. An appendix in this article includes the questions these researchers asked students in order to ascertain these effects. They could easily be made into a survey that students being given choices could be asked to complete.

Reference: Ackerman, D. S., Gross, B. L., and Celly, K. W. (2014). Having many choice options seems like a great idea, but … : Student perceptions about the level of choice for a project topic in a marketing course. Journal of Marketing Education, 36 (3), 221-232.

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