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How to Motivate Students Through Choice

Janelle Cox

One of the many challenges that teachers face in the classroom is how to motivate students. We know that when students are motivated, they learn more. For decades research has revealed that student motivation is linked to student achievement. Therefore, we always try to find out how to motivate students. One strategy that many teachers are now trying out to help foster more interest in the classroom is student choice. Choice can be a powerful way to know how to motivate students because in the traditional classroom setting, students are rarely invited to become active participants in their own learning. Here we will take a look at how teachers can help design choices that will influence students’ motivation, as well as look at some evidence that confirms that student choice does indeed help students succeed.

How to Motivate Students By Crafting Effective Choices

While student choice is a strategy that is definitely worth looking into, it is not the cure to end unmotivated students. According to the Ohio Resource Center, It is helpful if you considered these factors before you use this strategy in your classroom.

Students Need a Sense of Control

For years, educational psychologists have said that one of the essential elements of student motivation is the need to feel in control and independent. This need to feel autonomous is pretty universal. When an outside source is controlling you, you may tend to push back and not like it. Let me give you an example. Let’s say that you went to the dentist and were pretty nervous about going because every time that you go, you know that it will feel uncomfortable. However, this time the dentist changed his technique and now gave you the option of what he should do first and what kind of fluoride he puts into your mouth. Your mood would change, right? Therefore, when related to school, effective choices help students feel more in control.

Students Need a Sense of Purpose

When crafting effective choices, students need a sense of purpose. The more meaningful a lesson or activity is to a student, the more likely the student will be motivated to continue participating in it. A great example of a choice that is fostered from a sense of purpose comes from an elementary teacher who was struggling to get some of her young boys in class to stay motivated in math. When she gave them the choice to use their Pokémon cards in math class, their motivation then skyrocketed. The students then saw the purpose, that math had a relation to something they were interested in, and were able to connect with something that they cared about. The result ended with the boys staying motivated and succeeding in math class.

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Students Need a Sense of Competence

Lastly, students need a sense of competence. It is said that people who believe they will succeed usually do because they tend to be more motivated. However, if the task is too challenging, then one’s motivation would suffer. An example of this comes from a middle school classroom where a teacher was having a hard time motivating her students to get involved in a real classroom discussion. She thought she was crafting her questions correctly – using open-ended questions that were not too hard or not too easy. However, the students were not motivated to answer them. So the teacher decided to ask the students to craft the questions. Once she used their questions, she saw their motivation soar. The result ended with the students feeling more compelled to answer the questions from their peers, because the students were better able to target their own level of understanding.

What Research Has Confirmed

The evidence to support the power of student choice is so compelling that it is difficult to understand how anyone would even question giving students more choices in the classroom. Here are just a few examples of what research has found.

  • When elementary students in a Pittsburgh classroom were given the chance of deciding which tasks they would work on in the classroom at any given moment, the result ended with the students completing more tasks in less time.
  • When high school students were given the task of working on a project without clear instructions (they had to decide for themselves how to find a solution), the result ended with students putting more time into the project, produced better write-ups of the project, and remembered the material better than those who have been told what to do for the assignment.
  • When college students had the opportunity to decide which puzzles they wanted to work on and how much time they wanted to put into working on them, the result ended with these students being more interested in their puzzles than the students who were told which puzzles to do and how much time they should spend on them.

The evidence to support student choice goes on and on. In short, choices that promote student control, and that give students a sense purpose and competence, are more likely to be motivating to them. While teachers have the option to draw from a multitude of teaching strategies to help cultivate more student interest and motivation, student choice seems to have a powerful impact on student motivation. However, giving students a “Choice” means that teachers have to learn to give up some control. But, this may ultimately lead to a successful lesson where students are engaged and more motivated to learn.

Do you use student choice in your classroom? What kinds of choices do you offer your students? Please leave your thoughts in the comment section below, we would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on this topic.

Janelle Cox is an education writer who uses her experience and knowledge to provide creative and original writing in the field of education. Janelle holds a Master's of Science in Education from the State University of New York College at Buffalo. She is also the Elementary Education Expert for About.com, as well as a contributing writer to TeachHUB.com and TeachHUB Magazine. You can follow her at Twitter @Empoweringk6ed, or on Facebook at Empowering K6 Educators.