Promoting Student Choice

When I was a graduate student, I routinely had two sections of the same class. As a rule I generally kept them on the same syllabus and schedule, and I still do that now that I have four sections of the same class most semesters. It makes less work for me and lets me focus more on the maintenance of each course, which is still substantial labor.

However, this doesn’t always work, because, as most educators can readily tell you, every class has its own character. One semester in graduate school, it came to a crisis moment: I would run one section on the plans and everything went perfectly, students learned and applied concepts, and I would come out of each class floating on a balloon of satisfaction. Then I would teach the same lesson plan to my other section, and the balloon would pop, I would crash, and a bad time was had by all. It just wasn’t working. I couldn’t figure out what was broken. It couldn’t be my lesson plan, because it worked perfectly in one section, but I also refused to believe that I just had an entire class of inept students either. It wasn’t me, and it wasn’t the students, so what was wrong? And more importantly, how could I fix it?

Stock image of a notepad inscribed with "Today" and a blank numbered list underneath it.
What was wrong with the lesson plan?

At some point, as I was trying to work it out and analyzing my lesson plans for what was broken, my sister suggested something to me that should have been ridiculously obvious: make two lesson plans.

Initially I balked. That would double my prep load, and I had homework for classes, and it seemed like too much. That lasted about fifteen minutes before I realized it would work. So I made two lesson plans that day for my next class session: one continuing what I had been doing for the class it was working with, and one that completely flipped the structure of the lesson around for the other one and did everything slightly differently.

And, of course, it worked.

The second class immediately started responding better. So much stress around lesson planning disappeared. Sure, I had to make twice as many plans, but I wasn’t dreading the popped balloon feeling, so it got easier overall. I was teaching to the students I had, not the students I wanted.

This semester, as I have said, I am focusing on streamlining my courses, to make as few moving parts for my students to navigate as possible. We all need the break. They just want the credit for a required core course and to survive a pandemic. I just want them to learn the basic principles of the course and stay alive in a pandemic. We all just want it done, with as little friction as possible.

But there is one fiddly bit in the middle of the asynchronous online clockwork that I’m keeping: the students have two lesson plans to choose from each week, basically. They get to choose their course participation activity each week: either a synchronous Zoom session with me (with multiple sessions offered for scheduling ease) or an asynchronous written exercise.

Stock image of an open notebook and pen next to a laptop computer with a coffee cup in the background.
Write something or do yet another Zoom session? Your choice.

We’re about at the end of the first week, so I can now report how that’s going with a little confidence. And it’s going! There was, as there often is when students are given choices, some confusion about the whole choice thing. Students aren’t used to being given freedom and agency in their school work, which is a major failing of our entire education system and its conventions that needs addressed and is, in fact, being addressed in a thousand ways by educators all over the place. But by and large, student choice is an exception, not a rule, so that made them pause, and I got a lot of emails asking for assurance that students really did get a choice. Yes, yes they do, and I don’t mind answering all of those emails (those are the fun, easy emails).

On average, I’m seeing about 15% of my students choosing the Zoom lectures. I expect that number to vary over the course of the semester, as the rhythm of the semester makes stress levels ebb and flow. That’s similar to the numbers I was seeing using the recorded video lectures when I presented them with full transcripts as an alternative in previous online semesters. Some people want to see a face; most people, evidently, are ok with just reading at their own pace. That’s ok. What matters here is that students have a choice for whichever kind of instruction works best for them in a time when it probably feels like they have little control over their lives in general.

Is there a tradeoff in the choice? Yes. I am finding I’m getting more input from the students who chose the written activity, which means I feel like I actually am getting to know them better as individuals. However, the students who attended the lectures are getting an added benefit of immediate feedback from me and additional explanation of concepts. I think, overall, it’s pretty balanced and fair.

The semester will tell how effective this specific strategy for promoting student choice has been. However, I stand by the decision because giving students choices is very important to promoting a good learning environment. Choices matter. Agency matters.

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