The other day, I was part of a focus group organized by an instructor so he could get student feedback on a group assignment he had designed and implemented for an intense 2-week module in a Health Sciences masters program. Participants were students who had completed the course last term. In that course, students could opt to complete a group project or an essay-based exam.
Toward the end of the focus group session, one of the students, we’ll call him Matt, said “I was confused why there was a choice in the course assignment”. He explained: “I’ve never had a course where students can choose between a group project or an exam and I was curious why we were given a choice.”
I was stunned. What?! This student has never been given a choice in his final assignment? In my own teaching within the UBC Faculty of Education, I always give the students choice; and in my experience as a student in that Faculty, I seem to recall that was always the case. I assumed it was fairly common practice.
In this post, I will briefly explore reasons to give choice in student assignments.
Giving students choice helps them establish relevance
When you offer students assignment choices, they engage in a decision making process about the pros and cons of the options presented. In making a choice, they need to figure out what is interesting (to them) and personally relevant (Carl Weiman Education Initiative, 2013). Sure, some (maybe even many) try to figure out which assignment will likely result in the highest grade. Nevertheless, all students have to consider the options and make some decisions based on what is most relevant and helpful to them, individually, at this time. This is drastically different from the instructor telling students why an assignment is relevant or simply assuming that the student can ‘see’ the relevance of doing a particular assignment. Along with their final submission, you may ask students to provide a 2-3 sentence explanation about why they chose assignment X–this might give you interesting insights.
Giving students choice taps into their motivation
In “How Learning Works” the authors write that “students’ motivation generates, directs, and sustains what they do to learn” (Ambrose, S., Bridges, M., Lovett, M., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M., 2010, p.69). Read that one again–there’s a lot to it! I find it notable that the sentence doesn’t end with “sustains what they learn”, but rather with “sustains what they do to learn“. Motivation, defined in this way, is about the process of learning and is tied to the notion of learning goals. Ambrose et al. point out that when students are guided by their learning goals (as opposed to their performance goals) they attempt to “gain competence and truly learn what an activity or task can teach them” (Ambrose et al., 2010, p.72). As instructors, this is what we strive for.
Giving students choice can prompt creativity
Unsurprisingly, creativity is defined in various ways. Here is a definition I like from Creativity at Work: “Creativity is characterised by the ability to perceive the world in new ways, to find hidden patterns, to make connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena, and to generate solutions.”
When students are not given every parameter for completing an assignment, they will engage in some creative processes. Creative thinking and critical thinking are connected and both are under the broader umbrella of learning.
As an instructor, I’ve been delighted on multiple occasions by the creativity students bring to their assignments when they are given choices.
Bonus benefit: Giving students choice makes marking more fun for the instructor
I don’t have any data on this, other than my own experience:
When I give students choice about their assignments (see here for example), I end up with a fair bit of variety. I have received videos, artwork, essays, mind maps with deep reflections, and more! This variety makes marking more fun for me.
Given that one of the key characteristics of learner-centered teaching is
“it motivates students by giving them some control over learning processes” (Weimer, 2013), then giving students choice is good learner-centered practice.
If this isn’t something you have tried, I strongly encourage you to do so! If you have any questions on how to go about this, I suggest you contact the teaching and learning centre at your post-secondary institution as I’m certain the fine folks there will be able to help you. You are also welcome to contact me.
Ambrose, S., M. Bridges, M. DiPietro, M. Lovett, and M. Norman (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.
Carl Weiman Education Initiative (2013). Motivating learning. Retrieved from http://www.cwsei.ubc.ca/resources/files/Motivating-Learning_CWSEI.pdf
Weimer, M. (2012). Five characteristics of learner-centered teaching. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/five-characteristics-of-learner-centered-teaching/.
Photo credit: (By complete fluke the picture I picked is by Derek Bruff, a fellow educational developer). Link to Derek Bruff’s picture above: https ://flic.kr/p/9vpdf7