Challenge by Choice: Providing Students with Choices to Promote Learning

I was one of those students in school who would do just enough to get by.  I rarely tried to go above and beyond, and yet I still earned honor roll marks and was a member of my school’s National Honor Society.  School came easy to me.  I did most of my homework during my classes and I never really challenged myself.  Occasionally though, a teacher would get tricky and confuse me so that I tried to do well and complete quality work that exceeded the objectives.  Those teachers were tricky players.  They would say something like, “If you want to take the easy way out, complete this version of the assignment, but if you want to try for an A and learn something, then you should do this version of the assignment.”  While I did usually take the easy way out in school, I didn’t want my teachers to think I did and so I would always opt for the more difficult task.  I chose my challenge thanks to some subterfuge caused by my teachers, but I did it anyway.  I challenged myself to complete the more difficult task when choices were offered to me.  However, choices were rarely provided to me in the classroom.  I wonder what my grades might have been had my teachers more frequently offered me choices in how I completed my work.  It does make me wonder.

Today in Humanities class, our students worked on the skill of note taking.  The boys practiced transferring highlights they made regarding an academic text into bullet-style notes.  After working through the first two paragraphs together and checking-in with them to be sure they understood how to properly complete bullet-style notes from highlights made at a prior time, they completed the final four paragraphs on their own as my co-teacher and I observed and offered feedback and guidance when necessary.  While most of the students had the skill down very well, a few of the students needed guidance and support from us.  Those accelerated students who picked up new skills quickly, finished prior to the end of class.  They then got to work on the note taking assessment.

For the note taking assessment, we’re offering students some options and choices.  For those students who struggle with the English language, such as our ESL students, and for those students who struggle to process information quickly, we have a short article for them to use in order to showcase their understanding of the note taking process.  As this text is written at a fifth grade reading level and doesn’t include many paragraphs, those students who choose to use this article to complete the assessment will only be able to earn a 3/4 on the two graded objectives for the assessment.  The piece is not long enough or challenging enough for the students to be able to demonstrate their ability to exceed the objectives being assessed.  For those students looking to try to exceed the graded objectives or for those students looking for a challenge, we have three other article options.  One article is longer and written at a sixth grade level, another article from Wikipedia is longer and written at a seventh grade reading level, and the third option is five pages long and written at an eighth grade reading level.  We’re not mandating the students make any specific choice.  While we will suggest to our ESL students to choose the easier article, we don’t want to prevent them from rising to the challenge of a more difficult text.  We explained to the students, when they were choosing their assessment article, the various choices and possibilities that exist for them.  They then made the decision on their own.  For some students, this was an easy choice.  They chose the easiest of the more challenging articles so that they could try to exceed the graded objectives but not have to spend too much extra time completing the assessment.  For one student, it proved quite the dilemma.  He went back and forth between two of the articles for about two minutes before he made his choice.  When I told one student that he had choices, he seemed excited.  “Really, choices.  Yes!” he said as he came to the front of the classroom to choose his article.

It was quite fun to observe the students as they made their choices today in class.  While not every student completed the practice phase of the activity, those who did seemed to like having options and the ability to challenge themselves or not.  Will offering these options help the students better own their learning?  I don’t know.  It will be interesting to see their final assessment and how they perform.  Will they be better able to showcase their true abilities regarding this particular skill being assessed because they were able to choose their challenge?  I do believe that choices help students feel engaged and allow them to better connect with the curriculum.  It would be interesting to try giving half the class one assessment with no choices while allowing the other half of the class to choose their assessment.  Would the results be any different?  While I would obviously hypothesize that the results would be different and that the group allowed to choose their assessment would more effectively be able to demonstrate their ability to meet the graded objectives, it does cause me to pause and wonder.  Perhaps I’ll try such an experiment in the future just to see what happens, as I am curious.


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