Motivate Students Online with Voice and Choice

Dr. Kathryn Kennedy has over 15 years of experience in online, blended, and digital learning in PreK-12, higher education, and beyond. Her work is focused at the intersection of research, practice, and policy. She owns and operates her own consulting firm that is currently helping inform PLTW’s current and future teaching and learning experiences. 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the topics most requested by educators when shifting from in-school learning to online learning is what they can do to motivate and engage their students. One of the research-based ways to do that is by incorporating voice and choice in your learning environment.

What does voice and choice mean exactly? It can mean a number of different things, so here are some ideas (not an exhaustive list) that you can try if they suit your context and learning environment: 

  • Give students options on what they can study. Instead of assigning everyone the same topic, allow students to choose which topic interests them the most. In the PLTW Distance Learning Support area of student courses, there is a page that houses Distance Learning Opportunities. There are three Quests, including one for Career, another for Ethics, and the final for Discovery. Each of these provide students options for their learning to explore what interests them the most. 
  • Provide the opportunity for students to choose their own partners and/or group members when working as part of a team on an assignment or project. 
  • Collaborate with your students to design a rubric for an assignment or project so that they are invested in the outcomes that they need to meet. 
  • Have students reflect on the purpose of why they are learning about the topic at hand. Ask them to make the clear connection to their life experiences – either past, present, or future.
  • Conduct a needs assessment by asking students to share their needs and what they want for their learning experience. 
  • Add in self-grading and reflection opportunities to provide students an opportunity to think intentionally about their approaches to their work. In the PLTW curriculum, the Discovery Quests mentioned above provide opportunities for students to reflect on their work. 
  • Create leadership opportunities in which students can engage within your learning environment. In some, if not most, cases, students may not have an opportunity like this in their lives, so providing a safe space for them to cultivate these skills of self-advocacy and agency can prepare them for future leadership opportunities. In the Distance Learning Support for students in Courses, the Skills for Success page outlines many questions students might have about their own learning and bolsters them to be able to answer those questions themselves. 
  • Design choice boards or menus for students to use. 
  • Implement meaningful assessments that provide students a choice as to what they learn and how they represent their learning. 
  • Meet individually with each student to understand what their interests and goals are and co-create a learning path that will support each of your students in a personalized way.
  • Allow students to create representations of their knowledge the way they understand a concept and create a repository of those representations so that students can learn from each other. 

After reading through all of these, you might be asking yourself, “If I give my students so much voice and choice, will I be giving up control over my learning environment and consequently creating chaos?” Beyond that fear is a point at which you become a facilitator of your students’ learning, what we often call a “guide on the side” instead of a “sage on the stage.”

When we as educators hand over our power in our learning environments to our students, they are engaged and even more empowered and confident. They take more ownership over their learning and, consequently, have more investment in it.

In the best case scenario, enough freedom and control to choose and have a voice in their learning can lead students to a higher level of creativity of expression in other areas of their lives. Additionally, when they feel like they have a voice in the learning community among all of the other students’ voices, they feel like a valued and contributing community member, which can then transfer to their role as a responsible, empathetic, and ethical global citizen.

PLTW’s blog intends to serve as a forum for ideas and perspectives from across our network. The opinions expressed are those of each guest author.