More choice is good, right?

We’d all rather have more items in the Taco Bell menu than fewer.  People prefer to be, or at least feel like they are, in control of their destiny (just ask the anti-maskers of the pandemic!) and it seems likely that our students are no different.  

Theoretically, when students perceive or exercise control over decision-making during learning, situational interest will be stimulated (Høgheim & Reber, 2017) and motivation and performance will increase due to the enjoyment and inherent satisfaction of having ownership over one’s actions (Leotti & Delgado, 2011; Patall et al., 2008; Ryan & Deci, 2020). Empirically, under certain conditions, the act of exercising control has led to improved outcomes compared to external control, such as enhanced memory (Murty et al., 2019) and motor performance (Lewthwaite et al., 2015).

While some researchers have argued that learners should be trusted to make more decisions in their learning (Byrne et al., 2016), others have produced evidence of learners being poor judges of their own abilities (Bjork et al., 2013; Kruger & Dunning, 1999; Nugteren et al., 2018) and having inaccurate opinions of teaching and learning effectiveness (Carpenter et al., 2020; Kirschner & van Merriënboer, 2013). Others, still, have questioned whether choices and options may impose an additional cognitive burden on learners that can impede learning (Carolan et al., 2014; Swaak & de Jong, 2001; Sweller et al., 2007; Vandewaetere & Clarebout, 2013). Despite the undeniable appeal of embedding choices in instruction, research in this area has led to rather disappointing results (e.g., mixed or negative; Carolan et al., 2014; DeMink-Carthew & Netcoh, 2019; Karich et al., 2014; Mozgalina, 2015; Zhang et al., 2017). Further research on the precise boundary conditions for the provision of choice is still needed in order to develop better prescriptions for teachers.

Choosing “how” I learn

I recently came across a study by Foster et al. (2018) that gave me some clarity around the choice conundrum I’ve faced in my own practice as a teacher. It is well known that providing guidance during initial instruction, such as in the form of worked examples, is superior to having learners try to problem-solve independently (Baars et al., 2014; Hoogerheide & Roelle, 2020; Renkl, 2014; Sweller, 1988, 2020; Wittwer & Renkl, 2010). While the so-called “worked example effect” is overwhelmingly accepted as fact amongst instructional designers, Foster et al. (2018) were curious what would happen if students were given the choice of studying a worked example or skipping to solve a problem. In my experience as an elementary teacher, this can be seen as a test of the effectiveness of a commonly-used choice strategy during “Centers” or “The Daily 5”, where learners can pick between “Learn with a teacher” or “Learn independently.”

Proponents of choice would say that the responsibility of choosing how one learns should fall on the student because it is assumed that the learner is the best judge of their learning needs (Byrne et al., 2016; Hannafin, 1984; Merrill, 1975). From the perspective of cognitive load theory, a theory with a strong evidence base that has produced a growing number of practical instructional strategies for teachers, a worked example should precede problem solving for learners dealing with novel information, and guidance should be faded and replaced with problem solving for learners dealing with familiar information (Kalyuga & Singh, 2016; Kirschner et al., 2006; Sweller et al., 2019). If giving students the choice between studying worked examples or bypassing worked examples to solve problems results in students matching themselves to the correct form of instruction according to their expertise (novices choose to study worked examples, experts choose to problem-solve) then us teachers should consider offering this sort of choice more often in our classrooms.

What were Foster et al.’s (2018) findings?

When given the choice of “how” they learned; between worked examples or problem solving; the participants, all of whom were classified as novices at probability problems by the pre-test, chose overwhelmingly to start their sequence of learning by attempting to solve a problem. During their second trial, a high number of learners, but certainly not all, chose to study a worked example, presumably because they figured out that they needed guidance. As you can imagine, this is not the most efficient way to go about learning math. The authors suggested in their theoretical framework that this behavior is to be expected; Most of us, when faced with a problem we’re meant to solve, will try to have a go at solving the problem rather than choosing the more effective option of undergoing guided instruction. In addition, Foster et al. found that participants highly preferred problem solving throughout the trials and consistently underutilized worked examples.

I see two implications that result from this research: 1. We should teach students to always begin their learning sequence by electing guided instruction; that is, to learn with the teacher, watch the Khan Academy video, or read the textbook’s example, and 2. We should use our position as the pedagogical expert in the room to match our students to instruction that is based on their level of knowledge rather than giving them unconditional choice during learning.  

While both implications are important, I’m more and more inclined to emphasize the latter.


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5 thoughts on “When Student Choice Backfires

  1. Appreciate the in-depth study and analysis you have carried out…
    Facilitators will always be required to help the receiver ie students in making decisions…afterall a decision making process requires multi inputs to come to conclusions..
    A student has to be groomed to make an ‘ informed decision’…yes confusions will be there depending on the experience the student has been through…that is where guidance comes in…
    But the final decision should be of the student…
    The students have to take on the responsibility of learning…with the facilitator ie the guide being available when required..
    Stay blessed 🙏😇

    Liked by 1 person

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