Student Engagement

The Case for Electives in Schools

Electives give students avenues for choice and can function as vehicles for core content standards.

June 27, 2018
Student making a watercolor painting on a drawing table in art class
©Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

A vibrant elective program in middle and secondary schools should be considered just as precious as the core classes—after all, electives are the one or two periods a day that students have had a say in selecting. In a nationwide survey I conducted of sixth through 12th graders (for my most recent book), I asked what engaged them the most as learners. Across the nation, student choice ranked high in results. And according to education researcher Robert Marzano, choice “has also been linked to increases in student effort, task performance, and subsequent learning.”

Yet this very quality—student choice—seems to be one of the factors that make electives vulnerable.

For many schools, budget cuts and an ebb and flow of educational funding are par for the course. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “As of the current 2017–18 school year, at least 12 states have cut ‘general’ or ‘formula’ funding—the primary form of state support for elementary and secondary schools—by 7 percent or more per student over the last decade.” In many cases, schools look to the classes they deem extras to be the first to fall.

For many, that means electives. However, I want to push back on this notion that electives are somehow expendable. In fact, some might argue they are just as vital as core content classes.

The Power of Connection

Students also reported in the nationwide survey I conducted that they need to be more connected to the adults on campus. We talk so much about differentiating students, but we need to differentiate teachers and schools too. It helps our students to connect with school if they learn that there are many diverse personalities on hand for them to learn from. Electives, many times, reflect the interests of the teachers that teach them as well as the students that choose them. This permits a student to automatically have a self-selected connection to the adult in the room.

The Journal of Educational Psychology recently reported that in a study of almost 400 students and their 25 teachers, researchers found that when teachers and students were given information about five similarities they shared, the knowledge helped improve student-teacher relationships and academic achievement.

Electives Support Core Classes

Electives can also do double duty as vehicles for core content standards. And teachers can help ensure that electives are not thought of as inferior to core classes by guaranteeing that they help carry the weight of teaching literacy along with core classes. Elective teachers can provide evidence of the learning happening by doing three key things:

  1. Encourage annotation when students read texts related to the elective topic.
  2. Utilize pre- and post-assessments to show growth in related informational reading comprehension.
  3. Fold in writing and oral presentations to help students communicate the elective’s content.

Yearbook, robotics, film society, photography, world languages, theater, speech and debate, music appreciation, and current events—all of these classes can tap into reading, writing, listening, and speaking. And all of them attract a variety of students while adding a self-selected layer of engagement to those students’ learning of core standards.

I’d also like to make the push for electives to be more inclusive. I think it would help eradicate the myth of electives being nonessential if we dropped the grade-point average prerequisite and other requirements that grant students access. Student choice, after all, must be about the student, not the process of selection.

Elective programs can play a large role in our schools’ goals in preparing our students for college and career. Being able to select classes reflects the same process that they will see again in college.

When Teachers Are Engaged

The fact is, while many consider electives the B story in a school, they can, in fact, set the tone for a campus and play a huge role in engagement. And because they are highly engaging, electives play a role in keeping our students on campus—especially those reluctant learners and ones who struggle academically.

The power of engagement, however, is not limited to students alone. Elective classes can serve a purpose to continue teachers’ engagement as well. Feeling like you’re burning out? Pitch a class that you want to teach, that you’d love to teach. Teach one that helps fuel your teaching flame. Teachers are helping to create master schedules that reflect a variety of interests—from gardening to digital storytelling. Create a class that helps lure students to learning in a way that engages you as well.