Learning How to Scaffold Student Choice
In her elective course built on project-based learning, the author learned a few things about how to help students make choices well.
When I first started teaching my Media and Design and Art elective back in 2014, I knew I wanted to give my students a choice in what they learned. Many of them ended up in the class not by choice, but simply because it fit in their schedule, and those students needed some kind of agency to feel engaged and be successful. Choice would establish that agency.
Traditionally, projects in my classroom were based around an essential question and a few important understandings and skills that I wanted students to take away. I would usually set up an assigned topic and specific checkpoints for them to complete. But that first year, I tried something completely new. I had students come up with a project idea and a proposal for me to approve, and then they worked on the project for the entire quarter (about 16 class periods).
Each week, they would submit a one-sentence update to Canvas (our learning management system) explaining what they had accomplished, and I would meet with students each class to discuss their progress and support them as needed. The classes met only twice a week and had over 30 students each, and it was a struggle to meet with each student to see how they were progressing and to review nearly 120 ongoing projects on a weekly basis.
The Problem of Too Much Choice—and How to Fix It
Many students did not manage their time well, and the projects they submitted at the end of the quarter were lackluster and often incomplete. I realized that I had given them too much choice without the necessary guidance to help them be successful. Students often got stuck when they struggled with a piece of software or art medium, and some either gave up on their idea or spent many class periods frozen and unable to move ahead. In the course evaluation, a student told me that I should have had more checkpoints to hold them more accountable—and I took that to heart.
Over the last few years, I have strategically built structures around student choice in my classroom, starting with giving students the choice of a number of loosely defined, open-ended projects that last only a couple of weeks instead of an entire quarter. I now have a continuous feedback loop between me and my students—they use a Google Slides file in Google Classroom to document their daily progress on their project in both words and pictures, which allows me to catch kids before they get stuck—I can provide just-in-time feedback. These portfolios also allow both me and the students see the projects’ development over time, and I can review them on my own if I don’t have time to meet with a student in class.
One of the biggest challenges in a choice-based classroom is when a student has buyer’s remorse: They chose a project and then, a few days or weeks into the work, they regret their decision. I use this issue as a teaching moment around resilience and planning, conferencing with the student about what they’re struggling with and why they want to quit the project. That’s not an option, which I make clear to them from the beginning—they’re going to work on the project for only a few weeks, so there isn’t time to switch.
When meeting with these students, I try to get to the root cause of the frustration. Sometimes it’s a lack of confidence or a misunderstanding about what they’re expected to do, and sometimes the kid really just regrets their choice. Depending on the situation, I may ask some probing questions or sit with the student and model aspects of the project for them. Together we tackle the issue they’ve been grappling with so they can get out of their rut.
Buyer’s remorse can be an important lesson for students. They learn what kinds of things they do and don’t enjoy doing. And they learn that doing something they don't enjoy can still be a valuable source of learning.
Another thing they’re sometimes surprised to learn is that they are often each other’s best resource. The collaborating they do on these projects can make the work more engaging, and it allows them to see how their peers tackle a similar problem.
Continuing to Refine the Process
While I’ve worked to fine-tune how I use choice in my classroom, it’s always a work in progress. What matters is that students feel a true sense of accomplishment, even when things don’t turn out the way they wish they had, because they owned the process, no matter what grade they ended up with.
In reading the reflections that students complete at the end of every project, I find that sometimes a student who struggled with a piece of software or whose project did not turn out they way they wanted has learned a lot about perseverance or about how to they could manage their time better. In a project-based classroom with a lot of student choice, the journey is as important as the product: The journey is messy, but the rewards are worth it.
By setting parameters around choice while allowing each student to explore their own interests, I’ve seen my students’ independence increase, and the quality of their work has improved dramatically. It was inspiring to see them work independently during our last project of this year using the strategies they’d learned. This was completely different from my first year—students were more invested in what they were learning and, with continuous feedback and better scaffolding on my part, were managing their time more effectively.