7 Ways to Hack Your Classroom to Include Student Choice

For a long time, when educators discussed differentiating instruction and meeting students’ individual needs, they did so through the framework of Learning Styles. However, in the last few years the idea of student achievement being impacted by lessons taught to their particular learning style has been debunked. No scientific, educational research has proven the validity of teaching for student learning styles; in fact, this blog post collected 10 statements from educational researchers that actually disprove the use of such approaches. We covered the same topic in The Myth of Learning Styles, where we made the point that, “Instructors should not just take into consideration a learner’s style, but also their background and interests.” This suggestion is based in solid research, which documents the positive relationship between student interest and academic success. The more engaged a student is in their schoolwork, the more motivated they are to learn and grow, and the more academically successful they become.

Teachers do a lot to maintain student interest. The use of technology and different classroom models, like blended learning, are strategies that increase student engagement. However, there are simpler ways to hold students’ interests, especially if you don’t have the financial or administrative support needed for high-tech engagement models. The key to student interest is simple: it’s choice.

The psychological effects of feeling a sense of control are well-documented and include greater levels of happiness and activity and lower levels of stress and anxiety. Educational research has shown that choice leads to more confident, more capable, and more interested students. Alfie Kohn’s classic article, “Choices for Children” cites the findings of a number of studies on student choice. In so doing, he describes a study that showed that giving second graders choice in learning tasks leads to great task completion in less time. Another study concluded that high school students asked to write up chemistry problems without step-by-step instructions completed better write-ups, and later remembered the material better than those who had been told exactly what to do.

While the practice of teaching to learning styles may be fading from popularity, the notion of including student choice is gaining momentum. Students may no longer be labeled “kinesthetic learners” but that doesn’t mean they don’t still want to do projects that include movement. Giving students choice taps into their personal preferences and their preferred ways of interacting with learning materials. Including more options for student choice in your classroom is simple. We’ve compiled 7 ways to include students in the decision-making process. Start implementing these suggestions one at a time, and soon you’ll see a whole new level of engagement!

Image via Flickr by US Department of Education

Image via Flickr by US Department of Education

7 Ways to Hack Your Classroom to Include More Student Choice

  1. Seating: Letting students choose their own seats is a big step toward encouraging them to be responsible for their own learning. Students must choose to sit near people who will help, rather than hurt, their learning. To ease students into making responsible seating choices, it is a good idea to give them guidelines about how to do so. You might require that an even number of boys and girls sit at a table together, or that students sit next to someone new each day. Helping students to identify their learning goals will also guide them in their choice. Check out this video from The Teaching Channel that features students in a Kindergarten class who are given choice about where to sit. The teacher in the video gives a very clear explanation about how she helps young students make responsible seating choices.
  2. Homework: Getting some students to complete homework is a constant battle for both parents and teachers, but incorporating choice in one of any number of ways can help. If you give math worksheets or use pages in a math textbook, let students complete any 5 items, rather than having to do every problem. In reading homework, choice might take the form of letting students read any book they so desire and set individual page count goals per night. Spelling or vocabulary homework can be a list of 7 possible ways to work with the words, like writing them in sentences, or finding them in real-world contexts, and asking students to choose 4 of the activities to be completed by the end of the week. In their study titled, “The Effectiveness and Relative Importance of Choice in the Classroom,” educational researchers Erika Patall, Harris Cooper, and Susan R Wynn found that choice in homework gave students more motivation to complete assignments, as well as better rates of completion, and better academic performance.
  3. Choice boards for classwork: Choice boards for student work are nothing new to teachers that are already well versed in differentiation strategies. These boards come in many varieties, like menus, tic-tac-toe boards, baseball boards, and choice lists. Each of these boards lists multiple activities for students to complete. Some activities are worth more points or are considered nonnegotiable, while others are worth fewer points or are optional. Generally, students must collect a certain number of points, or as with the tic-tac-toe board, complete three activities in a row, for the assignment to be completed. The Dare to Differentiate website on choice boards is an amazing resource that offers blank boards, completed example boards for certain skills, and videos on how classes implement choice boards.
  4. Summative projects: Projects are supposed to be fun, creative ways for students to present learning. Yet, when a student is told exactly what form a project should take and exactly what topics it should cover, that leaves little creative work. However, through essays, posters, presentations, blog posts, songs, creative stories, dramatic scenes, and videos, there are so many that ways students can demonstrate what they have learned after reading a book or completing a unit of study. The simplest way to introduce choice in projects is to let students choose how they want to prove their learning. You can still create a rubric that outlines what content you are looking for, but make it general enough that students can engage with the material in any way they choose. Rubistar is an easy-to-use, online rubric generator that can help you get started!
  5. Learning celebrations: How often do you celebrate student work? Some teachers hold poetry slams or “coffee shops” and invite parents and other classes to see the products of their students’ hard work. Turn a classroom into a museum with work exhibits, or hold a fair or expo. Ask students to become involved in the planning of celebrations. Start off with a new unit with the simple question, “How should we celebrate all of this work when we’re finished?” Giving students a big, public end goal, especially one that they’re invested in the planning of, will ignite their enthusiasm. This article from Responsive Classroom has a few good tips for setting up learning celebrations.
  6. Assessments: Giving students choice in testing is not something you see in many classrooms. Many teachers feel that they should model their classroom assessments after standardized testing as a way to prepare students for what to expect. And while that may be a great test-prep strategy, is it also the best way to see if students have mastered the material? That’s debatable. One simple way to start with choice in testing is to tell students that they must answer any 15 out of the 20 questions. If you want to make sure they answer at least one question from each topic, group your tests into sections and tell students to choose any 3 of 5 questions from each section. You might also consider adding a variety of question types, like constructed response, multiple choice with multiple correct answers, true/false and yes/no items. In doing so, you are giving students even more choice and modeling your classroom tests after Common Core assessments, especially if you build your tests online. This article from Education World explains one teacher’s way of giving choice during testing.
  7. Unstructured innovation time: Major companies like 3M and Google give their employees time during their scheduled workweek to innovate. Employees are allowed to work on projects that excite them, that may or may not be directly related to their specific job. Thanks to this innovation time we now have Post-its and Gmail. Imagine what your students could do if you gave them some unstructured innovation time. This idea may not fly in many schools, but what about tying it to research standards? Let students study what they want to study, do their research, build what they want to build, and go through the inquiry cycle, just like 3M and Google employees do. The 20-Time in Education website has everything you need to get started implementing some innovative work time for your students.

In Short

Despite its tremendous popularity, teaching to learning styles may not be a scientifically sound strategy. But encouraging student engagement and interest most definitely is. Letting students make choices in the classroom makes them feel like stakeholders in the classroom. With the strategies listed above, you should be all set to start empowering your students to make great choices about their learning!

1 Comment

  1. Linda

    March 27, 2015 at 5:49 pm

    Allowing students to be responsible for their learning is an excellent way to empower and excite students to learn. I like the way in many instances, the teacher continues to manipulate things a little, so that students still must complete certain problems or assignments within the curriculum. When students feel that they have a “say” in their learning, they are more apt to take on certain academic challenges that they may have shied away from, if it was teacher-driven.