Choice Is a Matter of Degree
Editor’s Note: We are pleased to introduce our new columnist Bryan
Goodwin, who will alternate with Jane David in writing the “Research
Says . . .” column. Bryan is vice president of communications for McREL,
a nonprofit organization providing research-based products and services
for K– 16 education. Before joining McREL, he was a journalist, high school
teacher, and college instructor. He has written a wide variety of McREL
research reports, including McREL’s most recent publication, Changing the
Odds for Student Success: What Matters Most.
Recently, my daughter engaged in a rite of passage at her school—the America Fair. For weeks, her project on her chosen
topic, the Great Depression, consumed her life
(and our dining room table) as she researched,
wrote a report, and prepared a museum-style
diorama to present at an open house.
Students in schools everywhere
participate in similar events every
year. Given the tremendous effort
such projects require of students and
teachers (and parents), it’s worth
asking, What is their real value?
Examining the Research
One premise underlying the use of
student projects is that if we allow
students to choose what to study,
they will be more motivated to learn.
A second premise is that students will
learn more by doing projects than
they will with traditional methods,
such as classroom lectures. Let’s look at what
research says about both assumptions.
Choice: Can You Have Too Much?
A 2008 meta-analysis of 41 studies found a
strong link between giving students choices
and their intrinsic motivation for doing a task,
their overall performance on the task, and their
willingness to accept challenging tasks (Patall,
Cooper, & Robinson, 2008). However, the
researchers also found diminishing returns when
students had too many choices: Giving more
than five options produced less benefit than
offering just three to five. The researchers concluded that with student choice, “too much of a
good thing may not be very good at all” (p. 298).
In a now-famous experiment, researchers
Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper (2000) gave
two groups of college students a weekend
assignment to write a two-page essay for extra
credit. The first group was given the choice of
6 possible essay topics; the second was given
30 choices. The counterintuitive result of the
experiment? The students who were given
fewer choices were more likely to turn in the
assignment, and they also wrote better essays.
Iyengar and Lepper concluded that having too
many options may have caused students in the
second group to simply “end the choice-making
The research suggests
that teachers give
but not too many.
ordeal” by choosing a “merely satisfactory” topic
for their essay (p. 1,000), which left them dissatisfied with their selection and less motivated
to do a good job. In short, giving students too
many choices or wide-open project assignments
may actually demotivate them by causing too
much angst over whether they’ve chosen the
right topic or making them expend all of their
mental energy on deciding what to do, rather
than on actually doing the project well.
Advice for Educators: Offer Limited Choice
The research suggests that teachers should
give students choices, but not too many. John
Guthrie, developer of Concept-Oriented Reading
Instruction, recommends that teachers offer
fewer choices to less experienced students—for
example, simply letting them choose between
two preselected readings. With more advanced