Choice in Student Motivation


I have always found learning to be intensely motivating in itself; the problem comes when students are learning something different from what I want them to learn. They are always learning—it’s what their brains are designed for—but unfortunately they can figure out lots of ways to get around what I truly want them to learn. Long story short, in my 30+ years of teaching I learned that if I want students to learn deeply, retentively, and without a great deal of behavioral issues, and be willing to stretch themselves, I had to give them a stake in their learning. Choice was my greatest fertilizer in the classroom garden.

There are many ways to offer students choice. I started out superficially, and ended up digging deeply. Here is a brief outline of my growth as a teacher as I learned to trust students with their own choices.

  1. I had a daily “choosing” time for preschoolers to “play” at the classroom centers while I worked with small groups. I did the same thing when I taught kindergarten, although my team partners did not at first approve. Soon, they were doing the same thing. (preschool-kindergarten)
  2. I set up weekly centers, and allowed students to choose when to complete each one, as long as they finished by Friday. (First-second graders.)
  3. I expanded academic centers with very focused objectives, and allowed students to choose which centers to do. Gradually the students began to adapt my activities to their needs, and we became “center collaborators” as they not only worked at the centers, but made materials to add to them, and asked me for specific activities. (First-second graders.)  This was very wonderful!
  4. When students began to ask me if they could do things I didn’t think they were capable of, I started to say yes. (First-second graders.) I found out they knew more about their capabilities than I did!
  5. I began to use Writer’s Workshop, and made sure students chose their own writing projects, focusing my instruction during that period on brief mini lessons, and individual conferences. I also had a “regular” writing period, where I chose the assignments and the “bigger” objectives.
  6. I allowed students (grades 1-5) to choose activities to do after their “work” was finished. They could create their own projects, if they wished, which they did. They could use any materials in the classroom, and bring items from home, if they so chose.
  7. I set up “Challenge Groups” for gifted students who worked in small groups with classroom volunteers. Students could sign up for the group (gifted or not), but in order to stay in it, they had to keep up with all their classwork, and it had to be done well. (I will write a detailed post on Challenge Groups later.) (grades 2-5)
  8. I assessed the students in my class (a grade 4/5 combination) to identify math skills that I needed to teach. I chose 3 skills, explained each skill group to the class, and allowed the students to choose which group to join. Here is where my life as a teacher really began to radically change! Some students signed up for all three groups, and I don’t just mean the over achievers! Some students signed up for groups where I thought they were already proficient. When I asked them why they chose that group, they gave very rational reasons, such as, “I know how to do it, but I don’t understand it.” “I know what to do, but I’m really slow.” “I don’t know how to use it in my life.” I’m not making these up! When I asked them how they were going to manage completing the work for 2 or 3 groups, when they ordinarily wouldn’t even complete it for one group, they assured me they could handle it. And they did! The groups lasted for 3 weeks, I tested them, they achieved, and from then on I ran my math class that way! This had the biggest impact on achievement and motivation of anything I’ve ever done. I would not recommend starting here, though. Small steps are a prudent plan–both for you and your students!
  9. In that same class (grade 4/5 combination), I made a booklet that had all the district objectives for each grade level.  I ran off the booklets and gave each student their own copy. Every month the students would mark off the objectives that they had “mastered” during the month. Of course, I had my own lists, and ALWAYS I would check them off for things for which they did not yet believe they were proficient. When I would conference with them about this, they could tell me exactly why they had not mastered the skill. Occasionally they would check off something for which I did not think they were proficient. Often they could show me in our short meeting that they were. Sometimes we just disagreed, and kept on—them with their lists, and me with mine.
  10. Finally, I included students in parent-teacher conferences. I gave them a form to fill out before the conference identifying strengths and weaknesses, needs, and a place to develop their own goals for each subject area. The student would present the plan at our conference, telling us what he wanted each of us (parents and teachers) to do to support him in achieving his goals. We would develop a plan together, with tasks for each person to accomplish, sort of like a little student-written IEP.

I did these things in general education classrooms, with general education students, ESL students, gifted students, and mildly affected special needs students, and it took a lot of years before I got to level 10! The more choice I gave the students, the harder they worked, and the better they achieved—and this was universal. That scatterbrained, wonderful, little boy who could never find his hands began to learn the things I wanted him to learn. The snarly, sarcastic little girl who did not have time for stupid school assignments started to do school work, and started to do it well. Over the course of the 24 years I spent as a regular education classroom teacher, I used these techniques, gradually developing them, and tweaking them in different ways for each new batch of kids. I ran my multi-graded classes using interest groups, skill groups, challenge groups, and workshops, tying everything together using art, science, and social studies themes. Achievement levels didn’t matter. The grade levels of the students didn’t matter, because my small group instruction was focused on specific skill needs. I just had to make sure that I had reading materials at every level represented by my students. Structure did the rest.

Parental support is essential for this type of instruction. I did not understand that at the very beginning and had one really bad year—not with the students, but with a few parents. When I began to include students in the parent-teacher conferences, support from parents mushroomed. Parents want to know their children are learning and passing the standards. They want them to work hard, and they don’t want to be constantly trouble-shooting problems. They want to see progress, and when students are motivated, progress shows. Choice motivates student effort, at least in my experience, BUT choice without a lot of structure will never work. More on that next time.

Photo Credit:  Love to Learn:  Photo by geralt, via

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