How Can I Add Choice to My Course to Give Students Autonomy and Motivate Deep Learning?

March 15, 2023

How Can I Add Choice to My Course to Give Students Autonomy and Motivate Deep Learning?

Author: Jennifer Albat

Last week’s March 15 Midweek Mentor highlighted a video discussing how learners can be given more choices to create autonomy and motivate deep learning. The featured presenter was   Ziska Strange from the University of Arizona. She began with defining choice. This is giving students the independence to guide their learning and demonstrate their mastery of something. Think of your course like a choose-your-own-adventure book, or a game where you have to choose which door to go through next. Choices can be applied to any modality of course. Some of you may have already tried something like this in your courses when you have allowed students to choose a topic for a presentation or paper. Maybe you’ve even allowed students to choose which questions they answer on an exam.

There are many reasons why you should consider using choice in your classes. Choices allow students to identify their own needs within your content. It also makes for a personal, meaningful, and relevant learning experience.

There are four types of choice discussed in the video. The first of these was the choice of topics, such as a topic for a presentation or paper. Another way to allow for choice of topic is a blank syllabus. Purposefully leave spaces where things can be negotiated. Have the students do some digging in the textbook, readings they find online, related videos, etc. Students must prepare an argument for why it should be part of the course. Then, as a class, vote on the topics. You can also use the materials discovered by students in future courses to help keep things fresh.  

Another type of choice is the choice of participation. This is more than just showing up to class. Students will be choosing how they participate in class based on the grade they want. Maybe the student already knows the semester is going to be crazy and is fine with getting a C in a general education course. Or, if they’re considering majoring in that area, they would want a B or A but know that their writing skills are not strong. They could then choose to do more presentations or hands-on learning rather than papers. This method of course design follows the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guidelines. Another way Krys accomplished this in one of her courses was by hiding clues in her lectures, readings, announcements, and assignments. They were content-related escape room-type of problems with decoding, puzzles, and such. Students who chose to participate in these were rewarded with homework passes, a preview of quiz questions, or extra content. Choice of participation is great for learners that may need to develop skills such as leadership or writing. They can participate and practice in a safe environment.

The third way to incorporate choice into your course is through the choice of assessment where learners choose how they will demonstrate their knowledge. The simplest way to start is allowing for choice between a paper, brochure, or presentation/PSA announcement. Again, we refer to the UDL guidelines to help structure the assessment. “In one course, students were learning a new language with a large focus on reading comprehension. At the end of a unit focused on telling past events, students were given the option to make a children’s book, to listen and read a news podcast in the language and summarize it for their classmates, or to take a short quiz where they would be expected to read and write in the past tense. In each of these, students are practicing and demonstrating their knowledge in their own ways.”

Rubrics are critical for choice assessments. The ones mentioned in the video are Carnegie Mellon University’s “Creating and Using Rubrics, UC-Denver’s “Creating a Rubric”, and AAC&U Value Rubrics.

The final way to provide choice discussed in the video is the choice of roles. Krys describes roles more as pathways. For example, if you are teaching an entry-level course, break up your choices based on if the students are undecided, have a narrowed list, and one for those declaring at the end of the semester. The assignments can be tailored to their specific situations. This could also be done based on skills. In a math course, students can take a pre-test at the start of the unit. Students who do not do well can be put on a pathway that gives them the scaffolding they need to be taken to the next level, and students who do well can skip the review content. Students in the middle can have a mix of both.

Designing for choice takes careful planning. The most important thing to remember is to always keep your objectives in mind and be sure to have a grading strategy.


Strange, Kristin Ziska (2019). Retrieved from


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