Giving students choice

A fork in the road with two stone paths in front, surrounded by trees

What happens when we put students in the director’s seat in terms of what, when, and how they learn and what might that look like in a course? There are many examples of democratizing the educational experience through a range of institutional and classroom levels and across the K-20 progression.  There are likewise many opinions on this idea from steadfast proponents and those in opposition.    Let’s take a brief look at imparting more academic power to students – the benefits, some practical considerations, and potential pitfalls.
Most faculty allow some level of choice for students such as what topic to pick for a research paper. But what about allowing students to choose which activity to work on, to determine the grading criteria, and even participate in the grading process? For example, individual learning plans could be established at the outset of class and a self-reflection assessment taken into consideration at the end.  What about allowing students to write the syllabus and vote on the direction the class will take in general? Or, on a smaller scale, how about offering a pool of assessment activities for lessons that students can choose from, and/or create or modify themselves, based on their interests?  This often isn’t the way we are used to teaching and it might be difficult to envision how that would work practically, but it’s worth a ponder if you feel your classroom needs a shift towards better engagement.
Potential benefits:

  • Instructors creatively engage and empower students through shared participatory decision making
  • Self-directed learning through choice fosters active learning
  • Individualized and project-based work chosen by students result in relevant learning opportunities
  • Co-creating fosters a greater sense of community ownership and responsibility
  • Choice helps to prepare students for a post-academic life

Potential challenges:

  • Uncomfortable for instructors due to fear of failure and lack of training on classroom management beyond more common lecture delivery and discussion
  • Not all students are intrinsically-motivated or explorative. More choice may not lead in positive direction.
  • In the real world, choice is not always an option

Management strategies:

  • Have students develop grading rubrics along with you
  • Ask students to help come up with assessment ideas based on your stated objectives
  • Use mid-course evaluations in order to correct issues that students may be reluctant to bring up
  • Employ a flipped classroom model for essential lecture material
  • Have a regular group and individual discussions to reflect on process and progress

If you are interested in brainstorming new strategies for your course, come visit us during Open Lab or any of our other faculty development opportunities. For a full listing, please see the event calendar at:
Further Reading
Weimer, M. A. (2011, June 21). A Role for Student Choice in Assessment?
About ds106. (n.d.)
Morrison, K.A. (2008, July 18). Democratic Classrooms: Incorporating Student Voice and Choice in Teacher Education Courses.
Ellsworth, J.D. (1999). The Democratic Classroom: Giving Students Power. The NEA Higher Education Journal, Spring, 61-70.
Harrison, A.F. (1994). Teaching and Democratic Values in Higher Education. Education and Culture, 11(2), 28-34.


  1. You forgot one. Students enter their own grades based upon their own assessment of their own creativity since they obviously already know everything. What a bunch of bunk!

    • Your suggestion sounds like an interesting experiment that would need to be carefully facilitated by the instructor. Integrating a peer evaluation component along with faculty-guided rubric building for the creative activity could help equalize any concerns regarding self-assessment disparity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *