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by Susan Lucille Davis
Educational Consultant

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September 13, 2016
The Conundrum of Student Choice in Project Based Learning

by Susan Lucille Davis
Educational Consultant

Do you recall when you were first given agency for your learning? Were you shocked, put off, or confused – because this approach was certainly unsettling and more demanding? Then think of a time when you naturally assumed agency for a project. You decided to up your tennis game, redesign your workspace, or repurpose the furniture collecting in the garage. How did you feel then?

Two Stories

I’ll digress with two stories of my own. The first, circa 1987, takes place during my first semester of full-time college-level teaching. As I designed the required exam for my freshman writing course, I wanted to give my students choice for their final essays. My well-meaning mentor, however, reviewed my exam and offered me then what seemed to be logical, well-considered advice. He suggested that it was more “fair” to offer the same question to all, because no two questions can ever really be equal. In addition, he warned, students might spend half the valuable exam time debating which question to choose. Not good. Also, he said, it would be much easier for me, as I graded the essays, to whip through a stack of exams all based on the same question. So, I followed his instructions to the letter.

My second story, circa 1977, comes from my own college experience. I was taking an independent study course with my mentor, auditing her course and supplementing the reading. At exam time, I showed up with all the other students and sat down with my blue books, my mimeoed essay questions, and my sharpened pencils. But the exam questions fell flat for me. Not that I had not prepared; rather, I had so much more to say than was asked. So I mustered some courage, sidled up to my professor, and explained my dilemma. “So,” she said, nonchalantly, “why don’t you write your own question, and then answer it?” Which is exactly what I did.

In short, the first story tells us choice takes up too much time, may give unfair advantage, and is less efficient. The second tells us that choosing demonstrates mastery, that learning is what matters most.

The Golden Mean
The Buck Institute’s project design rubric provides these guidelines for projects that truly incorporate student choice: “Students have opportunities to express voice and choice on important matters (questions asked, texts and resources used, people to work with, products to be created, use of time, organization of tasks). Students have opportunities to take significant responsibility and work as independently from the teacher as is appropriate, with guidance.”

Yet, how often have I heard educators resist the call to give students choice – citing expediency, practicality, fairness, and or old habits? Sometimes even the most dedicated teachers unknowingly hoard all the creative choices for themselves. Others avoid offering choice because they fear backlash. Sadly, a good number lack their own sense of agency as professionals. They may recognize the power of giving students choice, but hold themselves back because they feel they just don’t have the time or the support to pursue it.

And, let’s face it, too much choice can be a problem too – whether students run in circles trying to game the system or end up feeling stymied from too many options. Psychologist Barry Schwartz tells us in his TED Talk on “The Paradox of Choice” that too much choice can paralyze us or at best make us feel dissatisfied. The golden mean of guided choice lies somewhere in the middle.

So, as teachers, we must imagine the project as fully as we can, pinpoint critical places for invoking student choice, and guide students thoughtfully through various options. The worst thing we can do is say, “Alright, go choose from the endless possibilities out there.” Instead, we might think of the complex structure of narrative gaming – where players make choices that branch off into other choices – while allowing for the serendipity of innovation.

Choice + Agency = Learning
But how much do we step in? When should we let the students flounder as part of the learning process? How can we inspire the courage and opening up required of making choices?

Teachers can help build the skills for choice by introducing them day-to-day. Students can practice choice in book selections or crafting questions for reading. They can choose topics when writing “free posts” in a blogging curriculum. Students can choose teammates and research topics, or even what to investigate for “genius” hour projects. They can certainly choose the device or tool most effective for accomplishing a task.

With such practice, students learn questioning, weighing options, curating, taking risks, deep thinking, evaluating, starting over, collaborating, inspiring others, openness, creativity, innovation, risk-taking, confident self-expression.

How to Begin
Many teachers recognize the power in student choice, but don’t know how to start. When I once gave a presentation on this topic, a colleague of mine responded, “You’re saying I just need to suck it up and do it, aren’t you?” My answer: “Well, yeah.”

To move past your reluctance, here are some ways to get started:

  • Have a real conversation with students about how they feel about choice, when they would want it, why they would hesitate.
  • Slow down and find the opportunities for choice already in your curriculum.
  • Practice saying, as I learned from John Hunter, “I don’t know. How will you solve that problem?”
  • Don’t hog the good stuff!
  • Talk to your administrators – you may have more room for choice than you think.
  • Give yourself permission.

If you worry that empowering students with voice and choice means becoming irrelevant because you are “not really teaching,” fear not. You’ll have plenty to do as you provide structure and framework, coach from the sidelines, and cheer madly as students take risks and truly learn.


Susan Lucille Davis is an educational consultant in Fort Worth, Texas. Twitter: @suludavis.


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