When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Give Choices: Using Choice as a Strategy to Motivate Students

by Kristin Holst, M.Ed.

The teaching profession is part art and part science. Nowhere is this more evident than in the area of student motivation. The science is found in the work of researchers such as Sprick, Garrison, and Howard (1998), who identified student behavior, intrinsic versus extrinsic factors, and task mastery as three underlying concepts that should guide teachers when motivating students. The art comes into play when implementing this research in a real classroom with real students to gain the highest levels of achievement and success, while fostering a love of learning within each student. A piece of cake, right? Well, luckily there is choice.

The idea of choice as an instructional strategy is often dismissed as too obvious or too simplistic. However, when utilized correctly, choice can be an extremely effective, powerful tool for motivating students. Consider the growth of choice in our culture. Cell phone companies, fast food restaurants, the entertainment industry, the Internet - all are geared toward giving people what they want, when they want it, and how they like it. Why? People are motivated by choice, by options. Even educators are more motivated to participate in professional development when they control which sessions they attend. Educators express concerns that control over what, when, and how they teach is being eroded by standardization. How can we expect our students to feel any differently about what and how they must learn? That is where the power of choice comes. When students are given meaningful choices regarding ways to achieve mastery over the required curricula, a positive cycle of student choice, increased motivation, and subject mastery begins.

Any student with low levels of engagement or motivation is a great candidate for a choice-making strategy, whether or not he or she has a disability. Choice-making, put simply, provides students with opportunities to make decisions that affect their daily lives (Jolivette, Stichter, & McCormick, 2002). This ability to choose increases task engagement (Dunlap et al., 1994), the accuracy of assignment completion (Cosden, Gannon, & Haring, 1995), and students' quality of life (Shogren, Fagella-Luby, Bae, & Wehmeyer, 2004). Choices that students may be offered may range from where they want to sit to complete tasks, to the sequence in which they complete tasks, to the materials the students use, to the peers with whom they would like to work.

No matter what choices are provided it is critical to ensure the objective of the lesson is still reached. Jolivette et al. (2002) offer some guidance when infusing choice-making into the curriculum:

  • Start with small, manageable choices, such as what to do with free time.

  • Infuse opportunities for making choices within the curricular area where the student is struggling and will experience the most gain.

  • View opportunities to make choices along a continuum. Even small choices in class provide practice for when students will need to make larger decisions about what career to pursue, where to live, etc.

  • Offer the same number of choices in an area each time and always see a student's choice through to completion. Consistency and follow-through are paramount.

So the balance between the science of research and the art of implementation continues. Student behavior, motivation, and task mastery thrive when students are given choices. Educators must structure these choices and help students maintain a cycle of success. Dwight D. Eisenhower may have put it best when he said, "Motivation is the art of getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it." Amen, Mr. President, amen.


Cosden, M., Gannon, C., & Haring, T. G. (1995). Teacher-control versus student-control over choice of task and reinforcement for students with severe behavior problems. Journal of Behavioral Education, 5, 11-27.

Dunlap, G., dePerczel, M., Clarke, S., Wilson, D., Wright, S., White, R., et al. (1994). Choice making to promote adaptive behavior for students with emotional and behavioral chal lenges. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 27, 505-518.

Jolivette, K., Stichter, J. P., & McCormick, K. (2002). Making choices - Improving behavior - Engaging in learning. Teaching Exceptional Children, 34,(3) 24-30.

Shogren, K. A., Fagella-Luby, M. N., Bae, S. J., & Wehmeyer, M. L. (2004). The effect of choice-making as an intervention for problem behavior: A meta-analysis. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 6, 228-237.

Sprick, R. S., Garrison, M., & Howard, L. M. (1998). CHAMPs: A proactive and positive aproach to classroom management. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Date: September/October 2007