Two Easy-To-Implement Options that Motivate Students and Teach Personal Responsibility

One of the things we as teachers can do to motivate students and provide them with a sense of personal power – within the class time we have – is to offer choice.

This is incredibly important when kids don’t have as many opportunities outside of school to make choices and experience the consequences of those choices. When students take responsibility for their choices, it increases their personal power.

Children can’t just run down the street to the playground with their friends, unsupervised, the way we got to do when we were young. I remember walking several blocks to the park, buying penny candy on the way to school. I had a sense of independence. I made choices. If I spent my quarter on candy in the morning, I couldn’t buy that Orange Crush after school. We had opportunities to make choices. We had recess twice a day and a break at lunch. Those were unstructured times to learn people skills. For most students, those choices no longer exist. In school, they’re bound by rules – rules about how to behave in class and in the halls, rules about where to be and at what time. Students may feel powerless in this constricted environment and that can have a huge negative impact on their motivation.

Teachers are limited in how much they can inspire and motivate individuals because of class size, time constraints and even more rules about what they can teach and how they teach it. Yet, giving students choices as part of class activities is so important. How can you do that? I’ve got a couple of suggestions.

 Option One: Choose How to Do Work

Joyce, a teaching colleague, was mandated to follow a lesson plan that dictated specific handouts for the students to complete. She had no option to switch the handout with some other assignment. Students had to complete this handout, which had ten problems to solve.

“Tell them to do it in any order they choose,” I suggested. “There’s no rule that says they have to do problems 1 through 10 in order. They can choose to do the easiest problems first. When they have success with the problems that are easier for them, they’ll be more confident and motivated to solve the tougher problems on the handout.”

You can even do this with assignments that aren’t already segmented into numbered problems. Say the class has to do the summary questions at the end of the history chapter, or a set of math questions from the book. However, you can’t have one student putting the answer to question 6 at the top of the paper, and another student putting the answer to question 3 up top, right? That would be a teacher’s nightmare when correcting.

So the solution here is to have them take the paper they’re working the problems on, and divide it into sections, drawing lines between each section and numbering them so they match the order of the questions in the book. You can even do what we used to do a long time ago as students, and fold the paper over twice, so that when it’s unfolded there are four even sections on each side, marked by the fold lines.

Then the students can answer those questions starting with any one they like – as long as they write the answers on their paper in the corresponding section.

This way, the students’ answers are in the correct spots, regardless of what order they answered them in – so you don’t have to go crazy later trying to grade their papers.

It’s one small way to give students a choice, but it can make a huge difference for them.

Option Two: Seating Plans

I’m a big fan of the class seating plan: I always had one when I was teaching. I didn’t want certain children sitting next to one another – you know how the dynamics between kids can be. A seating plan brings a little more order to the class and makes a teacher’s life a little bit easier. But it’s one more rule that takes away student choice.

We can give children some control over this, though. We can give them a choice when the lesson doesn’t require such structure. I’d frame the choice by saying, “Okay, when we’re doing independent work, or when you’re working with your partner (or group), you can sit where you want. You can stand where you want. As long as you follow class rules and aren’t misbehaving, you can choose where to work.”

For kids who hate sitting in the same seat for the whole class time, this is a tremendous motivator. They get that sense of, “I only have to put up with sitting still for the first 15 minutes of lecture, and then I can go and stand across the room and use the bookcase for a desk,” or sit in whatever flexible seating the teacher has arranged.

Bad Choices: Opportunities to Build Personal Responsibility

You may be thinking, giving students too much freedom has its downside. Noisy groups can disrupt the class.

But offering students a choice isn’t just empowering: It opens them up to making bad choices and having to deal with the consequences of those choices.

My colleague, Joyce, pointed out that a couple of her students liked to chat nonstop whenever they sat together. That was why she had assigned seating, to keep the two of them focused on studying.

I suggested that she let them choose to work together during the independent activity part of class. I explained that she should clearly spell out the consequences of making a bad choice to chitchat and not do the assignment. Choose language that reminds students they own the choice and the consequences of that choice. Say, “All right, you chose to work with Noreen. You both need to follow class rules and behave appropriately. Make a good choice so I don’t have to make the choice for you. I’d rather you make your own choice.”

That spells out to the students that there are consequences. It allows them to decide how they want to proceed. It gives them a little bit of control. Then, if they start chitchatting, instead of saying, “You two are misbehaving,” Joyce can remind them, “You two are making a choice that isn’t the best one. If you want to keep working together, how can you make a better choice?”

The Power of Choice and Consequence

Many children today are reaching their teen years and they haven’t made a lot of choices that have real consequences. Consequently, their executive function isn’t very well developed, and they’re at risk for making some horrible choices.

 It doesn’t seem like a lot, giving students the power to make these small choices. However, choosing how they’ll do an assignment or where they’ll stand or sit during class makes a difference when these decisions are a frequent occurrence. It really does have an effect. Even if it’s just allowing flexible seating during class – kids can get really excited about that, and that can translate into completed assignments and much more enthusiasm for learning.

Think about ways you can give students a choice within the constraints of a class. Consider that offering just one option, and being clear about the consequences of making a bad choice, can have a huge effect on your students.

For more on ways to motivate students, take a look at this article on how to motivate students based on who they are.

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