By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.
As a child of the ’60s and ’70s, I had three television stations to watch (ABC, CBS, and NBC). Now there are hundreds to choose from. In those days, the choices for water were tap—with or without ice. Consider how many different types of water are at our fingertips now. Toothpaste? Only mint flavored. But now you can get toothpaste flavored like cupcakes, licorice, chocolate, and even bacon. Yes, bacon!
With the increase of options in our daily lives, making good choices becomes more complex and critical. Research indicates that providing students choices in learning dramatically enhances their intrinsic motivation, effort, performance on tasks, and self-efficacy (how students feel about their abilities). To make choices in learning most effective, we must ensure that the choices we offer students adhere to two guiding principles: They are relevant and meaningful.
To make choices relevant, be sure to connect the overall content to the skills being developed within the lesson or unit of study. This also means that the offerings should be aligned to student interests, prior experiences, or abilities. Relevance ensures that the student grasps the value of interacting with the material. In other words, relevance is the way the content connects with the learner. To avoid hearing “When am I ever going to use this?” incorporate these two factors to increase relevance:
- Value: Activities that are not only interesting but also worth knowing for future goals
- Relatedness: Activities that call upon skills and abilities children know they possess and can implement to accomplish the end goal
Consider this example for a math assignment:
From the data provided, draw a scaled picture graph and a scaled bar graph to represent the data set using several categories.
Choices (based on student interests):
- The Naturalist team will analyze data on rates of attendance to Minnesota state parks from 2000 to the present.
- The Arts team will analyze data on rates of attendance to Minnesota Orchestra concerts from 2000 to the present.
- The Sports team will analyze data on rates of attendance to Minnesota Twins baseball games from 2000 to the present.
Define why you chose the specific activity. How did you connect the content to yourself?
Each group will represent their data in two ways: create a presentation to share the data and write an explanation and interpretation of the data (such as what does the data tell us and what predictions can be made). As a class, we will compare and contrast the overall data to make some future predictions and generalizations about what people are most interested in doing with their free time.
To make options meaningful, be sure to connect the student to the content in three different ways:
- Using the student’s prior knowledge
- Using the student’s prior experiences
- Asking the student to apply the new knowledge to her or his own life, now or in the near future
Content that has meaning is more likely to be retained in long-term memory. In the words of my friend and colleague Rick Wormeli, content is meaningful when it “connects with something already in the students’ daily or past experiences and students can use those connections in new and current ways.” Students are more likely to demonstrate their understanding of the conceptual levels of content when there is a greater level of meaning.
Consider this example of a social studies assignment:
Based on our study of the American Revolution, choose one of the following to share your understanding of the causes, effects, and consequences of revolution.
Choices (based on learner profile):
- Creative: Investigate a revolution in the world of art (music, performing arts, visual arts, etc.). Define what led to the revolution (causes), what others felt or believed about the revolution (effects), and how it has impacted the current status of the art form today (consequences). In graphic form, share what you have learned.
- Analytical: Investigate a revolution in the field of science (medical, ecological, geological, etc.). Define what led to the revolution (causes), what others felt or believed about the revolution (effects), and how it has impacted the current status of the field of science today (consequences). Share your learning in a debate form, arguing for or against the revolution.
- Practical: Investigate a military’s or country’s revolution (other than the American Revolution). Define what led to the revolution (causes), what others felt or believed about the revolution (effects), and how it has impacted the current status of the country today (consequences). Compare and contrast your findings to what we know about the American Revolution.
Explain why you chose the specific activity. How did you connect to the content? As a class, we will compare and contrast the overall understandings of revolutions to make some future predictions and generalizations about the causes, effects, and consequences of revolutions.
Making good choices is a critical skill for success in life. However, to learn how to make good choices, students must be offered good choices. Using relevance (connecting the content to the learner) and meaningfulness (connecting the learner to the content), we can assist students in learning quality decision-making strategies.
Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.
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Patall, E. A., Cooper, H., and Robinson, J. C. “The Effects of Choice on Intrinsic Motivation and Related Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis of Research Findings.” Psychological Bulletin, 134, no. 2 (2008): 270.
Wormeli, R. Personal communication, September 25, 2018.