Major support for MindShift comes from
Landmark College
upper waypoint

Why Choice Matters to Student Learning

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

A student journals her response to a writing prompt in a tenth-grade English class. (Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action)

Excerpted from "Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement" by Heather Wolpert-Gawron. The following is from the chapter "Give Us Choices." 

By Heather Wolpert-Gawron

In 1971, Starbucks opened in Pike Place Market in Seattle, Washington. Since then, according to recent math, Starbucks now offers up to 87,000 options for your sipping pleasure (“Starbucks Stay Mum on Drink Math,” 2008).

OK, perhaps I’m creating a correlation here, but hear me out. It is a suspicious coincidence that during the first decade of Starbucks’ life, there was also the birth of a large study in humanistic education by David N. Aspy and Flora N. Roebuck. This study spanned the 1970s and focused on student-centered learning, an element of which is student choice.

Now, I’m not equating the import of weighing your options in caffeinated beverage with one’s choice in how to display knowledge of your content area, but it seems to me that at some point, there was a shift in expectation in our culture outside of school that soon became reflected within school as well.

From "Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement" by Heather Wolpert-Gawron

According to the student engagement survey, student choice is listed as one of the most engaging strategies a teacher can allow in the classroom. Want to know how to engage students, enthuse them, and bring out their best effort? Want ways to differentiate organically? Give them a voice in their decisions. In a society that barely listens to each other, listen to our students. In a system that can be a flood of top down, let your classroom be one that allows voices to trickle up. We have, in our very classrooms, the brains that will solve the problems of tomorrow, but to give them training means we have to give their neurons a chance to solve the problems of today.


Student choice builds ownership in the learning.

Student choice allows students to display their learning in the way that they feel best represents their knowledge.

Student choice enforces true differentiation.

The Academic Benefits of Student Choice

Jim Bentley (2016) of the Buck Institute of Education (BIE) is an expert in student choice since it is a deeply rooted element in project-based learning, the strategy at the heart of the Buck Institute. He believes that student choice also redefines the position of teacher from knowledge authority to learning guide. He says that

[e]ngagement is a fire that can quickly die out when things get challenging. That’s where it’s important to build in student voice and choice as well as the concepts of sustained inquiry and critique and revision. With student voice and choice, teachers are managing the work of students not controlling it. If a student or team wants to take a certain angle on a task they can—given it aligns with the purpose of the project. . . . Students generally respond well, liking the freedom.

In fact, student choice is so important to BIE that it has included it in the rubric it uses to assess units of study to ensure that student choice is encouraged and utilized. The rubric itself promotes the belief that

Choice + Agency = Learning

It asks teachers to evaluate whether “Students have opportunities to express voice and choice on important matters (questions asked, texts and resources used, people to work with, products to be created, use of time, organization of tasks)” (Davis, 2016).

From "Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement" by Heather Wolpert-Gawron

This ambiguity of student choice can intimidate any teacher, but is a surmountable fear and a fear that must be challenged. In terms of creating evidence of knowledge, the intense structure of “do this, like this” is not as effective as “what way would best work for you?”

And research backs up what the students have long known. Results from a 2010 study show that when

students received a choice of homework they reported higher intrinsic motivation to do homework, felt more competent regarding the homework, and performed better on the unit test compared with when they did not have a choice. In addition, a trend suggested that having choices enhanced homework completion rates compared with when no choices were given. (Patall, Cooper, & Wynn, 2010)

The theory of consuming information in a single, teacher-prescribed way, also may not play into the strengths of each and every student. The good news is that there is guidance out there to help teachers select the most appropriate elements of their teaching in which to offer choice.

In fact, research proves that student choice increases both engagement and motivation for tween, teens, and in fact, all age levels. According to Robert Marzano, “When given choice by teachers, students perceive classroom activities as more important. Choice in the classroom has also been linked to increases in student effort, task performance, and subsequent learning” (Marzano Research, n.d.). Marzano goes on to report that granting students choice directly aligns with student engagement. He encourages teachers to give choice in the following:

1. Tasks to perform
2. Ways to report
3. Establishing their own learning goals

This seems to promote more ownership in their learning and outcomes. Marzano further recommends the following:

To provide a choice of task to students, a teacher can provide multiple task options on an assessment and ask students to respond to the one that interests them most. Similarly, a teacher can provide students with the option to choose their own reporting format. The two most common reporting formats are written and oral reports. . . . However, students may also choose to present information through debates, video reports, demonstrations, or dramatic presentations. To give students a particularly powerful choice, a teacher can ask students to create their own learning goals. When giving students the option to design their own learning goals, a teacher should hold students accountable for both their self-identified learning goal as well as teacher-identified learning goals for that unit.

Allowing students some choice in their learning is clearly proving successful. In 2008, a meta-analysis was conducted by Patall, Cooper, and Robinson (n.d.) that examined 41 studies on the topic. “Results indicated that providing choice enhanced intrinsic motivation, effort, task performance, and perceived competence, among other outcomes,” according to its authors.

But our goals for our students are not all academic. We need students to learn how to make decisions, how to weigh options, and how to advocate for their opinions. Therefore, if we are to help develop students into citizens, we need to include choice as a vital strategy toward that goal.

Alfie Kohn (2010) believes that

[t]he psychological benefits of control are, if anything, even more pronounced. All else being equal, emotional adjustment is better over time for people who experience a sense of self-determination; by contrast, few things lead more reliably to depression and other forms of psychological distress than a feeling of helplessness. . . . The truth is that, if we want children to take responsibility for their own behavior, we must first give them responsibility, and plenty of it. The way a child learns how to make decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.

School is a place to help train students to handle the choices that life throws at them; if anything, we should be encouraging as many opportunities as possible for students to work that muscle in the gym that is school.

To find ideas for how to offer choice in your classroom, check out Heather's companion article, "What Giving Students Choice Looks Like in the Classroom."


Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher and author of Just Ask Us (Corwin, 2018). She has authored several other books including: DIY for Project Based Learning for ELA and History, DIY for Project Based Learning for Math and Science, Writing Behind Every Door: Teaching Common Core Writing in the Content Areas and Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers. Heather is a staff blogger for and shares all things middle school at Follow Heather on Twitter: @tweenteacher.

lower waypoint
next waypoint