Giving Students More Choice During Distance Learning: Tips and Resources

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By Patti Drapeau, author of Inspiring Student Empowerment: Moving Beyond Engagement, Refining Differentiation

Giving Students More Choice During Distance Learning: Tips and ResourcesStudent choice makes a difference. When students make choices, they are invested in their learning, they feel listened to and valued. They feel in control of their learning, and their self-esteem increases. Teachers can provide students with choices about what to learn, how to learn, or how to show what they learned. This can happen in the face-to-face classroom as well as with distance learning.

Some students have difficulty making good choices, or even making any choice at all. When students do not have much experience making decisions, they may feel overwhelmed, unsure, or even afraid when asked to make a choice. Some students fear making a mistake or making a wrong choice. These students become insecure in their decision-making ability and often rely on their friends to guide their decision-making.

With distance learning, students cannot readily turn to their neighbors and see the choices their peers are making. It is harder for them to copy ideas. We do not want students to do this anyway; we want them to make their own decisions. We need to help students learn how to make good choices and feel comfortable making them. We can help students make informed choices by working with them to establish the following:

  • Students are aware of how they learn best.
  • Students know their learning targets.
  • Students understand their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Students are mindful of resources available to them.
  • Students consider support that is available to them.

Teachers can offer different types of choices. Let’s consider whether students have a choice in what they study. Since standards and learning targets determine what is required content, there is often little wiggle room when it comes to content choice. In some instances, teachers allow students to choose topics or subtopics based on students’ interests if their interests can be tied to required content. For example, let’s say students are studying the solar system. One student loves math, so he focuses on data related to the solar system. He creates an infographic to share his findings with the other students. One student is very social and likes people. This student focuses on the space program and astronaut training. The student creates a TED Talk–type presentation and presents it online to the other students. One student likes art. That student creates a multimedia poster that shows a model of the solar system. All students can share their findings with one another.

Teachers can also offer students choice when it comes to instructional activities. Take, for example, a choice board on the solar system. This board is arranged in a three-by-three grid (see below). Students have the choice to respond to the questions or activities in a row, in a column, or on a diagonal.

Compare and contrast two planets. Compare and contrast our solar system and the Milky Way galaxy. Imagine vacationing on the moon. Pretend you are a travel agent trying to convince someone to vacation there.
What is the purpose of space exploration? Judge whether this is true: “A solar system must consist of patterns.” What does an astronaut do while on a space mission?
What would happen if a pattern of stars in a constellation were altered? What makes a planet a planet, and why did Pluto lose its planet status? In terms of orbiting the sun or a planet, what is the difference between rotation and revolution?

An alternative to this activity is for students to create their own questions. Provide a write-in template in Google Docs or whatever platform you’re using. After students create their own boards, they trade boards with another student and respond to the prompts on the board they received. Here’s another idea: Give students the choice to do a spinner activity. To create their own spinners, students draw a circle and divide it into nine sections. In the sections, they write the prompts from the choice board. They lay a paperclip on the center of the circle and pin one end with the tip of a pencil. The student spins the paperclip and answers the question in the section where the paperclip lands.

With distance learning, teachers provide product choices just as they do in the face-to-face classroom. They may ask students to choose between taking an online quiz, writing a paragraph with hyperlinks, or creating a recording. Once students are comfortable making a choice between three teacher-generated options, let them add their own options by placing their ideas in the chat box. Add these ideas to the three choices. If the product form posed in the chat box is not going to be an effective way to show what students know, explain why the product form will not work and do not add it to the list of options. The students then choose from the teacher-and-student-generated product list. Once students are used to adding product ideas, ask them to create their own options and make a decision with no teacher prompting.

Teachers can also incorporate choice into assessment. For example, students generate their own questions about the content. Collect all the questions, create a Google Doc, and place the list in Google Drive. The students access the list and choose which questions they want to answer. You can assign varying amounts of points to the easy and hard questions. In this way, if students choose to answer all easy questions, they will be unable to attain a top score. The issue of grading always comes up with product choice. Teachers can delegate different points or values to different activities or products. Another way to deal with grading is for students to create their own rubrics and submit them for your approval. If approved, use the student-generated rubrics to grade students’ work.

Resources

Here are some resources that can help you offer additional activity and product choices:

Patti Drapeau () is an internationally active educational consultant, author, and presenter, with more than 25 years of classroom experience. Patti conducts keynote sessions as well as short- and long-term workshops in the United States and abroad. She commonly presents on the following topics: differentiation, creativity, engagement, gifted education, student empowerment, and personalized learning.

Patti is the founder of Patti Drapeau Educational Consulting Services and has received the New England Region Gifted and Talented award for outstanding contributions in gifted education and the Maine Educators of the Gifted and Talented award for exemplary service. Patti coached programs such as Odyssey of the Mind, Future Problem Solving, Explorer Vision, and math teams. She also developed a curriculum model for the regular classroom called “Affective Perspectives: Combining Critical Thinking, Creative Thinking, and Affect,” and authored a variety of articles for the Maine Exchange, Teaching Matters, and Understanding Our Gifted. Her other books include Sparking Student Creativity: Practical Ways to Promote Innovative Thinking and Problem Solving, Differentiating with Graphic Organizers: Tools to Foster Critical and Creative Thinking, Differentiated Instruction: Making It Work, and Great Teaching with Graphic Organizers.

Patti currently works as a consultant and she is a part-time faculty member at the University of Southern Maine. She lives in Freeport, Maine.

Patti is the author of .


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