6 Principles of Choice-Based Learning Students Crave
Choice-based learning is a process in which learners have a greater sense of control over the way their interests, backgrounds, and preferences work together to enhance their learning and determine how they interact with educational content. Studies show that when students have some control over their learning they make more positive choices in the classroom due to increased confidence levels. Yet, countless teachers shy away from giving students choices because they assume it might be more difficult to manage.
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Many teachers believe it takes less planning and effort for all students to work on the same lesson or that students will always go for what appears to be the easiest option. This is not always the case. It’s actually much more challenging to keep students engaged and motivated about a topic they have little interest in when you control every step of the process.
By combining choice-based learning with technology in the classroom, students have the opportunity to self-differentiate their learning, which typically makes the work they choose more appropriately challenging and causes students to display more on-task behavior. If you give students partial autonomy over their work, they’ll engage in deeper, more meaningful learning.
Now that you’re privy to the why of choice-based learning, let’s talk about the how. Below are six principles you can follow to better learning experiences.
Choice-Based Principle #1: Ensure Students Understand the Content
Before you offer students a choice on how they interact with your educational content, be certain that they have a firm grasp of the concept or skill they’re expected to learn. The best time to check for understanding is, undoubtedly, while the lesson is happening.
This isn’t always possible, but keep in mind that determining whether or not your students get it can’t wait for the summative assessment—it needs to happen way before. Moving ahead without this crucial step can be detrimental for comprehension, both short and long-term.
Here are a few strategies to check for student understanding before moving on to implement choice-based learning options:
Avoid Yes or No Questions
Yes or No questions have their place, but they’re hardly ever appropriate when you need to really understand what your students know. Avoid asking questions like “Does this make sense to everyone?” or “Are you still with me?”
Instead, try selecting random students to provide a quick summary of what you just said at major checkpoints in the lesson. But don’t forget to offer sufficient wait time.
If you were a student prior to the 2000s, you probably remember having a weekly list of vocabulary words that you were expected to take home to dutifully consult with Webster at the kitchen table.
No? Just me?
Even though research shows that writing things down helps commit them to memory, copying definitions from the dictionary and never laying eyes on them again seems like a huge waste of time. And, for the record, is not what I’m suggesting.
The best way to pre-teach vocabulary is by making it relevant. Introduce new terms with pictures or ideas that are immediately relatable to students. Try using analogies or metaphors too. Or use a differentiation strategy like Vocabulary Mapping, where students work in pairs or groups to “map out” a word by answering these questions:
- What is it/does it mean?
- How can it be described?
- What are some examples of the word?
- What are some non-examples of the word?
For a quick review, post a prompt or question and give students a few moments to think about their responses. After formulating an idea, they share it with a partner to compare thoughts before sharing with the entire class. You can even have partners share the other person’s ideas as an additional extension activity.
Think of Dialogue Logs as a way to make passing notes in class productive and on-task. Sharing a paper, students take turns responding to an initial prompt and each other using starter language like, “I think,” “I agree,” or “In my opinion.”
At the end of a lesson, have students respond to the following prompt: 3 things they learned from the lesson, 2 things they want to know more about, and 1 question they still have. This is a simple strategy that gives you a lot of bang for your buck and can even be used as an exit ticket.
Speaking of exit tickets …
Give students a piece of paper (preferably a sticky note) and a few minutes at the end of a lesson. Students respond to a prompt designed to evaluate their understanding. On their way out of class, collect the papers and review student responses before the next lesson.
Or, if you used the sticky notes, save yourself a couple minutes between classes by having students stick their responses on the door on the way out. In my classroom, I’d have the first student to come in for the next class period take them down and put them on my desk so I could review them later.
You can also give exit tickets via an online assessment using your learning management system (LMS) or other digital assessment tool. This way, all the results are automatically compiled and easy to review by question, by student, or other metric.
Choice-Based Principle #2: Identify the Learning Outcome
Students must be clear on what it is they’re expected to learn, achieve, and/or produce. Without a specific and measurable goal, students are less likely to buy into the lesson and its accompanying assignments.
In order to identify the learning outcome, take a look at the standards your lesson addresses and ask yourself, “What do my students need to know and/or be able to do to prove that they’ve mastered this objective?” The answer to this is your learning outcome, which should be posted somewhere in your physical or digital classroom for students to see after you’ve discussed it with them in detail.
Choice-Based Principle #3: Model the Options
Having too many options can overwhelm even the most decisive individuals. Make options easier to digest by demonstrating—or modeling. When using modeling as an instructional strategy, the purpose is to ensure students have a clear understanding of what is expected of them.
Modeling can take many forms, but one fact remains true: the more explicit you can make it, the better. One of the most straightforward ways to model the options students have to choose from is task and performance modeling. This type of modeling occurs when you demonstrate the skill or or task students are expected to complete on their own.
Choice-Based Principle #4: Make the Options Easily Accessible
In addition to knowing what the options are, students should be able to access them easily. There are several ways to achieve this, especially if you’re incorporating choices in your blended classroom.
If you’re using an LMS, you can house choice-based assignments, their descriptions, and components for students to have access to from anywhere. This way they can work on their assignments just as easily at home as they can at school. An alternative would be housing all of the choice-based assignments in a binder in your classroom—somewhere students can access it without disrupting others.
Choice-Based Principle #5: Monitor and Reteach
The nature of choice-based learning requires keen active monitoring. Since students are working on different assignments at assumingly different paces, it’s critical that you stay on top of the happenings in the classroom, especially when technology is involved. Don’t let a lack of classroom management be the detriment of all of your efforts.
When students are working independently or in small groups, you should move around the classroom, carefully observing and listening—I cannot stress this enough. Circulating is the best way to remind students that you’re not only aware of what’s going on, but ready to help if they need you. Don’t hesitate to read papers and eavesdrop on academic conversations.
Notice an error in a response? Point it out. Don’t let students continue to go down the wrong path if you can help it. Without calling too much peer attention to the error, give your student a heads-up on whatever it is they need to readdress.
If you notice that more than three or four students are having the same comprehension issue, get everyone’s attention and take a moment to reteach the skill or concept. You can also arrange a small group to reteach later.
Choice-Based Principle #6: Encourage Student Feedback
As with most modern instructional approaches, choice-based learning is student centered. What better way to know if it’s working for students than to simply ask their opinions? You’d be surprised what you can learn from an anonymous—but serious—survey. If you have a good relationship with your students, they are likely to tell you exactly what worked for them, as well as the parts of the process they absolutely hated.
And guess what your students’ responses are? That’s right: valuable data! And seriously, who doesn’t love some good ol’ actionable data? Weed through your student’s responses for the gems that can be used to guide further instruction, improve your choice-based learning options, and enhance the overall learning experience for everyone.
Next Steps with Choice-Based Learning
So if by now you’re vigorously jotting down choice-based learning options for your next unit, be sure to check out How to Implement Choice-Based Learning in Your Blended Classroom for more in-depth ideas and strategies. And remember, if this is your first time incorporating choices with your students, start small with only a few options, ensure students understand the why they're doing the work and how to do it, and develop a monitoring system that works for you.
I can’t wait to hear about the awesome things your students can accomplish with a little more autonomy. Feel free to share your ideas and experiences in the comments below.