‘Multiple Choices’ for Students…Helping or Hindering?

TooManyOptionsThere is an increased focus on student choice in education today, which in turn has created more student-centered classrooms that use problem-based learning. However, as institutions try to incorporate more student-centered initiatives into the classroom, there is often a lack of critical consideration for the potentially negative effects increased choice may have on student learning.

Student choice in this context refers to the opportunity for students to choose the pathway and methodology to accomplish assignments or projects. For example, students would have the opportunity to choose a topic they wish to explore and the approach they use to demonstrate their learning. These initiatives have a place in the classroom and can increase student motivation and creativity, but schools need to consistently question their own practices.

It has been a decade since Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory at Swarthmore College, introduced the concept that people experience paralysis of the mind when overloaded with choices. In Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Schwartz discovered during experiments in grocery stores that people were more likely to buy a product when presented with fewer choices. In 2013, Daniel Mochon, an assistant professor of marketing at Tulane University, countered this theory in his own research about the power of single-option aversion—the idea that people are averse to buying a product when there is only one choice available.

The new question then becomes: What degree of choice should we have? This applies to the classroom too. Though these studies apply to retail, they have grounds in the field of education regarding student choice. The question is not about giving students choice or not; it’s to what degree student choice is effective.

There are measurable consequences when teachers provide students with endless choices. The common thought is that teachers avoid student choice because they are afraid of turning over control to students. The problem is not loss of control for teachers, but the difficulty of directing their attention to each individual student. Student choice can create a wide variety of individual projects with a range of outcomes and varying degrees of progress in classroom learning. Feedback is one of the most important elements in student problem-solving—a necessary component of student choice—but the increased individuality of projects can make it difficult for teachers to provide coaching to each student.

This reality forces teachers to choose between two options: generalizing the feedback and instruction, which makes this help less applicable to each student; or increasing individualized attention, which becomes shortsighted because of competing time and resource constraints.

We know that effective feedback takes copious amounts of time when all students complete the same assignment—and the greater the variety of student choice only increases that time. There needs to be a balance between an appropriate amount of student choice and the ability of the teacher to impart the feedback necessary to reach maximum student growth in a timely manner.

In addition, teachers cannot expect that increasing student choice and freedom will automatically improve student learning. Unfortunately, unlimited choice can set students up to fail. Teachers must help their students develop the appropriate skills for how to approach a problem and evaluate success and failure so that students can make more of their own effective choices in the classroom.

Too often, schools accept educational trends and expand them into every facet of teaching practices without evaluating the impact they have on student learning. Instructors, administrators, and students must discuss together the effects of student choice and the ways in which it can both help and hinder learning. Education leaders could also use professional-development opportunities to discuss with teachers effective student choice in the classroom.

If institutional leaders start this discussion, we can start to move away from the haphazard execution of this trend and, instead, create a learning environment that provides sustainable growth for all students.