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Engaging students in today’s classroom is a challenge. Teachers have to compete with distractions from computers, cell phones, and iPods, as well as old-fashioned note-passing (my students call this analog texting). For many students, there is always something at their fingertips that is more interesting than your lesson, no matter how beautifully it is crafted.

I have found that giving students choices in their assignments can keep them engaged. I discovered this strategy when I handed out an assignment to a morning class that I had created the previous bleary-eyed night. As a result, the assignment was laden with copy and paste errors, typos, and gaps in information. So I went through the assignment with students, question by question, and identified the problems they were expected to complete. A 20-question assignment suddenly became a seven-problem assignment. They were incredulous. “We only have to do these?” they asked, pointing at the small portion of uncrossed-out space on the assignment, making sure I wasn’t pulling a fast one on them. I assured them that they understood me correctly—and they all got to work. Everybody. At the same time. I had virtually 100% participation in the first class of the day!

Some students completed the abbreviated assignment early, but the level of student engagement in the assignment got my wheels turning. I teach one class in the morning, and then I have some planning time, followed by a full slate of afternoon classes. I usually have time to fix what did not go well in the morning for the afternoon classes. This time, I decided to NOT fix that assignment and stick to the “ignore this problem, ignore that problem” approach. I had the same results in all classes—virtually 100% engagement with n = 4 classes!

I realized I could use this technique in different ways. The next time, I added two challenging problems at the end of an assignment and gave students the option of only doing five of the seven problems. Once again, there were high levels of student participation. I also found I could use choice as a means of giving proficient students more challenging work; for example, in the assignment above, I tell those proficient students that of the five problems they choose, at least one must come from the last two problems.

In another instance, in preparation for a quiz, I created a tic-tac-toe review exercise that was more successful than I ever could have hoped. I paired up students and gave them a 3 × 3 grid of questions. Together, they had to work together to get tic-tac-toe by answering at least three questions in the correct configuration. The first team to achieve tic-tac-toe earned bonus points. When they completed a tic-tac-toe pattern of correct answers, they received another sheet that was a little more difficult than the last. The tic-tac-toe board was giving students choices in a different way: They could “ignore” six of nine problems and still successfully complete the exercise. The accomplishment of each tic-tac-toe board allowed students to build their confidence, which prepared them to tackle the progressively harder tic-tac-toe boards.

By allowing students to make choices, I was both increasing student engagement and incorporating differentiation into formative and summative assessments. It turns out that those two benefits were enhanced by a third benefit: For them to make choices, students had to read the entire assignment/assessment. By giving students choice, it removed the barrier of the first “stumper” question. Can’t do it? Skip it! Stuck? Skip it! In the past, I have seen students get stuck on problem three of a 20-problem quiz and stop right there. In my experience, students who are empowered to choose which problems they do are more likely to complete the assignment. In addition, incorporating student choice into assignments and assessments has made those assessment items more effective as reporting tools of what students have learned and what I need to go back and reteach.

Giving students choices as they complete assignments is one way to develop their ownership of the education process. Simply allowing students to choose which problems to do and which to ignore works wonders for student engagement. If I want students to do five problems and I give them five problems, they grumble. If I give them 10 problems and ask them to do five, they are happy and engaged. If I give them 20 problems and ask them to do five, they are positively giddy about ditching 15 problems. To me, they are still doing the five problems I want them to do. Choice matters.

Photo Credit: DepositPhotos.com/iqoncept (Top), Depositphotos.com/sanadesign (Bottom)