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We all do it. The semester is drawing to a close, the students are tired, we’re tired. There’s one more assignment to hand out, that major project that’s supposed to somehow capture the entirety of students’ learning from the past semester. Back in week 1, we had some glorious ideas for that assignment, but now that it’s week 11? Not so much.
So the next day in class, we hand out what I’ve come to call The Generic Paper. Or The Generic Oral Presentation. Or The Generic Poster Presentation. You get the point. The genre and medium may change, but the prompt always begins the same way: “Choose a topic that interests you.”
Despite our fatigue, our intentions for providing choice of this kind are good. We want students to like what they’re writing about (or presenting about, etc.). We want them to have a sense of agency, of control. Which is smart. The brain likes control, after all. And if we’re going to send our students out into the world as responsible citizens, what better way to prepare them for that than to give them the opportunity to make decisions—and, implicitly, to understand the benefits or consequences of those decisions (or both)?
But choice—wide-open choice, with the sole caveat that the topic has to come from our work this semester—isn’t unequivocally positive. A 2000 study by Iyengar and Lepper experimented with offering grocery store shoppers one of two scenarios. In the first, somewhere between 24 and 30 varieties of jam were on display. In the second, there were only six. While the study found that the larger display generated more interest, you probably already know the punchline: shoppers were roughly 10 times more likely to purchase jam from the smaller display. Gaye Timken, chair of health and exercise science at Western Oregon University, puts it this way: “It’s not that people want choice; it’s that they want meaningful choice.”
Carter Chandler, head peer tutor of the writing center at Washington and Lee University, points out that sometimes those wide-open prompts can be paralyzing: “Some students end up spending more time choosing a topic than they do actually writing. They spend all their time trying to figure out what the professor wants, what topic would make them happy.”
It’s that last point that’s perhaps most troubling: If our goal is greater student engagement in the project—greater intrinsic motivation—have we really achieved this if students only choose what they think we want?
I’m not suggesting that we get rid of student choice altogether. Rather, what I’m proposing is that we find ways to nudge students toward more meaningful choices.
For instance, what if, early in the semester, we took a page from some of Brené Brown’s work and asked students to develop a list of 10 values they hold dear, perhaps prompting them by sharing Brown’s list. A few days later, we could ask them to prune this list down to five. We’d need to acknowledge that this can be hard but add that our goal is to recognize the core values that motivate each of us. (If you have time, you may want to have students break into groups to discuss their decisions. This can help to build a stronger sense of community in the course.)
Finally, we ask students to winnow their lists down to two essential values: belonging, for instance, or vulnerability, simplicity, or power. Once they’ve done that, it’s important to give them time to reflect on what these values look like when actualized. To do so, I’d suggest having them brainstorm in response to two questions:
First, what might your values look like in the world around us?
Second, how might your values relate to the topic of this course?
Students should be sure to keep these lists. Because when we hand them the assignment prompt come week 11, it should include language along the lines of “Choose a topic that both relates to the course content we’ve covered and reflects the values you chose earlier this term.”
Instructors can and should tweak this protocol, of course, tinkering with the timing to ensure that it works well with the course schedule and adjusting the particulars and terminology to match their course, their field, and their sense of who they choose to be as an instructor in the classroom. Perhaps “values” isn’t the right word? Maybe we could ask students to list hobbies or interests or just “things you care about”?
Regardless, the key here is that rather than choosing to write or speak about course topics that they hope fulfill the instructor’s interests, students are being prompted to focus on their own interests. And because they’ve had an opportunity to deliberate about what those interests may look like in connection to the course and the world around them, students will likely need to spend less time at the peak of the semester struggling to find topics.
In addition to the potential for greater intrinsic engagement, this approach has value in that it seeks to connect students’ prior knowledge and experiences to the course content. Because this means connecting new neuronal networks to existing ones, it increases the probability of easier and more lasting recall. Further, anytime we can foreground the ways that course content connects to the complexities of life beyond university walls, we’ve scored a win. Students can see that learning course content and skills isn’t a meaningless transaction (“I write this paper and you give me a diploma”). Rather, it’s about understanding the world we live in and finding purpose in both that understanding and that world.
To state the obvious, this approach isn’t right for every assignment, every course, or even every instructor. Perhaps quantum physics doesn’t care about our values. Or perhaps we live in a region of the country or work with a student cohort where the values we encounter are disturbing and problematic. Fair enough. But then again, perhaps it’s better that students engage these values in a thoughtful, deliberative way in formal assignments rather than leaving them to ferment in unexamined darkness. After all, if our students don’t have opportunities to work with their values now—applying them, questioning them, revising them—when will they?
Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6), 995–1006. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1245
Paul Hanstedt, PhD, is the founding director of the Harte Center for Teaching and Learning at Washington and Lee University and the author of General Education Essentials: A Guide for College Faculty (about to come out in a second edition) and Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World.
Great article. Thanks, Paul. The issues you raise are multiplied in much of the Majority World, where students are completely lost in vague general choice, and more directive approaches to learning tasks are imperative. Having taught for over 20 years in Syria and Lebanon I came to realise that the following led to much more satisfying results: very detailed and clear instructions in the syllabus, often with a variety of feed-forward samples of what good work might look like; one-on-one discussion with students about potential topics and strategies; time in class for students to discuss with their peers what they were doing; and a clear checklist cum rubric of what I was looking for. Some of these would probably be beneficial in “Western” contexts as well.