The Engaging Power of Choice…
Lately, I've been focusing on the relationship between education technology and student success. Just last week, this article in Campus Technology magazine stated that, based on a recent survey, “more than half of faculty believe classroom tech increases student engagement”. I guess that's a good thing, but frankly I find that statement a bit disturbing. It is fine to assume that some kids will enjoy using technology in the educational setting, but it is highly misleading to infer that technology alone will equate to engagement. This is one of the reasons we read about huge tech failures in schools. There needs to be an informed approach to the use of technology for teaching and learning, not just an assumption that a device and software will magically lead to improvements.
There is no shortage of research that can help us understand how students learn best, and we need to incorporate that sort of learning science into how we choose to leverage technology. For example, we recently considered how technology can be used to support practicing spaced repetition for improved memory. We also explored some Do's and Don'ts for more effective digital content creation and delivery, based on what learning science tells us.
The relationship between CHOICE and student engagement
In this post, I want to examine and share the relationship between CHOICE and effective student engagement and learning. There is a lot of research on this and we as educators would do well to keep this in mind and look for opportunities to incorporate student choice in our teaching practices. There are also many ways to leverage technology as a part of giving students choices.
The article “To engage students, give them meaningful choices in the classroom” in the journal Phi Delta Kappan, explains that autonomy, competence, and relatedness are what makes choice engaging for students. “When students associate feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness with choice, then choice is most likely to result in beneficial outcomes, such as student engagement.”
Autonomy is the capacity to make an informed, uncoerced decision. In other words, choices need to be real. If you give students two or three terrible choices, that's not going to work. Students need choices that they feel are meaningful.
Students need to feel competent that they can be successful with one or more of the choices they are offered. A choice of options that one cannot succeed with is really no choice at all.
As for relatedness, students (as do all of us) do better when they can relate ideas they are learning about to their own world. This reminds me of the interview I did with chemistry teacher and flipped learning early adopter Mark Seigel, in which he explained that he would ask students to look for examples of chemical reactions in the kitchen over thanksgiving. Sometimes it will be easy to relate learning to our students' worlds and sometimes it may be a stretch, but is always worth it. Hint: if you are really at a loss, consider engaging with students and working together to figure out how something relates to their lives.
Exploring the connection of choice and learning further, A.J. Juliani reminds us that research shows that choice enhances ownership, which leads to empowerment and ultimately to deeper learning.
In writing about his book, Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn, Mike Anderson reminds us that choice can also help us address the challenge of differentiation. For example, if students are given a choice of books to read, they are likely to self-differentiate and select a book appropriate to their reading level, which will help to ensure a more engaging reading experience. In that same article, Anderson also writes about the relationship between choice and the “The Zone of Proximal Development and Engagement” (where students are appropriately challenged).
So how/where can we provide opportunities for students to choose?
Here are some examples of how we can give choice, and how technology can play a role in providing students opportunities to choose.
Choices in Learning Content and Pathways
We are reminded above of the simple idea of offering different books to read. Similarly, when any assignment is being given, consider how you can provide choices. Students can select their own projects (from a long list, or suggest one themselves). Give students choices of learning materials (“everyone must read Chapter 6, and then pick 2 videos or articles from this list and share something you learned from each”).
In many courses, you can give students choices in how they move through the topics that need to be learned. My Flipped Learning Network colleague Matthew T. Moore is a big fan of “non-linear” approaches to learning, as explained in this piece, Breaking Through The Lines: Non-linear Planning Provides Choice. Moore offers suggestions for Making Lessons Non-Linear In 5 Minutes-ish.
Choices in Assessment
If I recall correctly, Mark Seigel (noted above, with link to interview) told me that he routinely had four quizzes available for each topic. Students could choose to improve their grade on a quiz for a given topic by taking another one if they wished. They could also take multiple quizzes to reinforce learning. Some students were “one and done” and some took all four every time. It was their choice.
Returning to the Phi Delta Kappan article we have this example:
“Every day, Ms. H prepared two warm-up problems, each with the same mathematical content but situated in different contexts — for example, one problem might have to do with hiking and the other with flying. The two contexts were always on the board, and during the first minute of class, students were allowed to vote for the one that interested them. In order to make sure that they could vote, some students began to arrive to class early, and overall, the number of students who were late went down. The motivation to select a context carried over into actually doing the warm-up problem. According to Ms. H, all students began to actively engage in doing the warm-up, which had not occurred before she began offering students the choice of contexts.”
Look at the benefits that offering choice resulted in in this example – students were engaged to the point of showing up for class earlier!
We can leverage technology as a part of making choices and how we assess by letting students choose how to demonstrate their learning. They can choose to write a paper, create a slide deck or other type of presentation (Infographic, Prezi presentation), or create a video to demonstrate their understanding of a topic.
Technology and Choice
In addition to the example just provided, there are lots of other ways that digital technology can be a part of the equation of choice in the classroom.
Research: The world wide web offers seemingly endless resources for learning. Students can select from formal documents (research papers, news articles, etc.) or less formal sources (blogs). They can tap into experts and resources via social media (Twitter is a great place to search out experts or focus on a topic by searching for relevant hashtags). They can look for videos on their chosen subjects. Of course, using these sources also requires them to work to differentiate between legitimate, authoritative sources and unsupported, uninformed sources, which is a vital skill to develop.
Collaboration: If students wish to collaborate on a project or assignment, they can choose from many different platforms for doing so. There are video chat tools like Skype or Hangouts (which is going through some changes), collaborative editing platforms like Google Docs, team tools like Slack for collecting resources and communicating, and so on.
Creation: For courses that allow for creativity, like writing, art, music, photography, and so on, there are often many tools and techniques students can choose from let them practice and demonstrate their learning. Mindmapping tools and spelling and grammar checkers for writing, painting and digital drawing and design tools for art classes, music practice apps and backing tracks to practice over – the list goes on and on.
Study/Review: In my recent piece on the effectiveness of Spaced Repetition for memory and recall, I wrote about how students can build their own spaced repetition “technology” by combining digital tools.
The article, What Giving Students Choice Looks Like in the Classroom, on the KQED news “Mindshift” site provides more examples of providing opportunities for choice.
So what others kinds of examples of choice do YOU use in your classrooms or courses? Drop a comment and share!