How do you motivate students to learn in the classroom?  The answer may be simpler than you might think.

Provide choice.

When students have a choice of how to learn new material or how to represent their learning, they feel they are in the driver’s seat. Students are more actively engaged when they pursue their own interests and work in a medium that matches their learning style. Offering students a choice fosters ownership, independence, and creativity. In addition, when students present a variety of finished products at the end of a lesson or unit, their peers are able to make more connections to the overall concepts because one topic is presented in many different ways.

This does not mean expectations and standards are abandoned or that your guidance is no longer crucial to student learning! It points to a shift from being a ‘sage on the stage’ to being more of a ‘guide on the side’.  As you can imagine, choice without structure will lead to chaos and it is still your role to provide the type of structure needed so the choices that students will make will make sense and will allow that deep understanding to develop.  A simple suggestion to begin offering your students choice is to start the school year by introducing students to the various activities that they can do when exploring different topics.  At the same time, discuss what standards will apply to the various tasks – this discussion is a good opportunity to collaborate with your students in developing rubrics and other assessment tools. The key to providing choice in the classroom is offering options that are appropriate for their ability, grade level, and learning goals.

As mentioned, allowing students to choose the tools they use and products they produce gives students a sense of ownership and control of their learning. They won’t feel that school just happening to them, they become active participants in their own learning. Students are then motivated to learn because they have a say and they care about what they are learning.

In this following video, teachers discuss how crucial choice has been in engaging and connecting with their students.  The students reveal the enthusiasm they have for learning activities when they can choose from different options.

Video: Choice

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Naryn Searcy, Princess Margaret Secondary

I think one of the biggest things would be offering choice, I think in a lot of ways that students can demonstrate their understanding of the material. That would be the number one factor. I also try and present the material in different ways, whether it be visual or something more creative as much as possible I try and get the students to present that material they’re far better at it than I am they have a much greater range of talents. You know if you take 30 teenagers in a room they can do things that I could not, and so they share that responsibility of sharing the information and teaching the class as well. And so that gives me a lot of, I want to say my weapons in my arsenal of presenting material, so I think that helps a lot as well.

James, Princess Margaret Secondary

It’s probably one of my favourite classes just because of how different it is. Just the fact that you’re allowed to go out there and do things that aren’t traditionally you know the sit-down lecture. It allows you to creatively think more. It’s generally just a fun class to be in. There’s field trips, you get to make movies, essentially anything that you can think of, if you can relate it to the course and the material, she’s open to trying it.

Abby, Princess Margaret Secondary

And she always gives us an option like if you don’t want to act, if you don’t want to put on a costume, then like sculpt something out of play dough. Show that way. Or be behind a camera or being making the comic. Like that’s what some people will do today.

Sylvia Bisbee, Davis Bay Elementary

Well first of all it allowed them to choose who they wanted to study. So it gives choice, it allowed them to choose how they wanted to share their learning, and I think it, and because they worked with a partner it also helped them get what they needed. I think it made the learning more accessible for them. Because there were so many options.

Darryl Cummings, Birchland Elementary

But the beauty of this is because it’s so choice driven, that you don’t really have to rely on minimums. The, often students will just take off with their learning. They’ll go well beyond what’s expected. In the past when I’ve done written projects, kids will write just the amount that they’re asked to write. With this they love exploring. Now these kids have seen what others in the past have done so they know what the possibilities are. As soon as I mentioned that we were going to do it, there was an audible buzz in the classroom. The kids were extremely excited to do it.

Bella, Birchland Elementary

Well we’re doing a project on the human body and me and my group, we’re doing the five senses, and I’m doing taste.

Keegan, Birchland Elementary

Well everybody’s doing something different but I’m doing the digestive system with my group.

Bella, Birchland Elementary

I usually go on the internet and I just, like, go on websites and then go on to Read out Loud and  write it in there.

Keegan, Birchland Elementary

I think we’re going to have it on like a whiteboard in the background but we’re also going to make a PowerPoint and we’re going to make a little diorama to show how it works and all that.

Darryl Cummings, Birchland Elementary

It’s whatever tool the child feels that they need, that’s what they use.

Dave Searcy, Penticton Secondary

Like I said, the students have been in classes for a long time told they’re going to have a democracy in class, but they really are faux-democracies. They’re not actual democracies where students get choice. Or I shouldn’t say that, students have choice, but they’re given two choices. One is do you want your break now, or do you want your break in ten minutes. That’s really not a true choice. And what we’ve tried to do in the class more and more especially this course is give them real options. And say it’s really up to you. I mean I planned on teaching quite a big unit on torts. And they weren’t interested. And one of the things we did when we did the selection process, was completely secret ballot and we put all their responses up.

Torin, Penticton Secondary

He asks what we like to do and we prefer this picture in picture comparison so we choose to do it that way instead of just essays or you know, paragraphs or what not.

Dylan, Penticton Secondary

He makes it like easier for us to understand and makes it interesting so we aren’t just reading out of the textbooks. So we get a deeper understanding because it’s things we want to study.

Craig Sung, Birchland Elementary

When you give them again, choices, and when you give them, when you help nurture that engagement and show them that they are learners, that they are capable of successes here, the power of it, is, it’s, it’s mind-blowing. . That’s what lies at the heart of UDL. The choices. And helping kids to see themselves in a different light. Giving them success in the classroom. .

Jeff Fitton, Skaha Lake Middle

And so I told students you can either do the test or you can do a project instead. Same marks. About half the class chose the test,  because they said I want it over with. I want to study and I’m very comfortable with tests. And the other half kind of launched a new conversation and said, yeah, why do we, that’s unfair. I’m not a great tester, I know the stuff, I can tell you about it, can I do a project. And they did. And to see this one student in particular, and this is what transformed me. He was the type of kid with the backwards hat, you know, the type of kid on weekends who might be getting into trouble, he sat at the back of the class. Always the last one in and the first to leave. And he got his project back and it was like a high B or a low A, I can’t remember. And he said well this must be a mistake. I’m not a B or an A kid. I’ve never got one before, so what gives. Did you go easy on me? I said, no, you deserve it. So we went through the criteria, he deserved every single one of them, and I went, here’s a poor kid that had just, for twelve years, school had kind of beaten him down. And for him to say sadly that, no, you must’ve made this easier for me, I just went, wow, we’re missing a lot of kids who maybe need other outlets for their creativity and other opportunities to show their learning to do well so that sold me on it and that was a small step, either a project or a test. It wasn’t that much work, and it’s ballooned from there.

Craig Sung, Birchland Elementary

Presenting options, choices, and through those choices, give the kids ownership. And the resulting pride that comes out of that, knowing that that’s what they did. That was their idea, they chose how to present it, they chose everything, all the important aspects of that, of that project, and yeah, so that’s kind of the key.

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