Choices are important for deep learning

While doing my research about learner agency, I interviewed high school seniors about their learning experiences. Students’ common perception regarding learner agency was that they do not have enough choices to engage in their learning. Also my M.Ed. students keep telling me experiencing the same phenomenon during their undergrad studies: very few choices being available. This makes no sense! Research shows the benefits of extending autonomy and the differences between instrumental and intrinsic motivation to engage in learning [1].  So why don’t we offer more choices for students?

Because I support teachers and faculty in their studies of instructional design, I have wondered this question for quite long time. I also and believe there are many answers to this question.

The first answer is frightening: we teach the way we were taught. There is a great chance for behaviorism being the predominant learning theory used in that instruction, and it is often combined with student engagement that focuses on passing instead of learning.

Yet, we have decades of educational research about learner autonomy and benefits of learner- and learning-centered instructional practices being superior to operant conditioning and rote memorization [2]. Having choices allows students to perceive that they have control over their own learning – which makes the work they put into learning and the effort to understand complex concepts to feel a little less a requirement, and thus more interesting. Students’ perceptions matter! Kahu (2013) states this clearly “Engagement is fundamentally situational – it arises from the interplay if context and individual” (p. 736).  How to engage is a choice every student makes during every lecture or class. Offering choices for engagement and learning is a great way to build learner autonomy. Self-determination and intrinsic motivation are related to better learning, performance, and well-being [4]. Especially adult students thrive in transformative learning environments, where they can engage in perspective transformation.

The other possibility for choices missing from instructional strategies is that providing choices can be intimidating for faculty:  it changes the power structure in the classroom, and shifts responsibility from teaching to learning. In instructional models based on transmission of information (lectures, MOOCs) and in accountability-based educational models it may be easier to vest the power to instructors instead of students. Also, it is often easier to measure that instruction has happened, instead of measuring learning that has occurred – especially as many assessments and evaluations focus on having a snapshot of students’ current knowledge across the group or cohort, instead of the increase of individual knowledge. Yet, even in such educational environment it is possible to embed choices into instructional practices to support students’ interest in their own learning process. In the information era, the supportive learning environment provides students with additional choices for finding information that help them to enjoy their learning engagement and learn more – even beyond the scope of the syllabus.

Another thought I had about the lack of choices in learning environments is the mismatch between developmental/learning theories and instructional approaches. The theory of stage-environment fit [5] describes the conflict between increased need for learner autonomy (during adolescence) and a rigid learning environment. Equally true is the incompatibility between adult development [6] and learning environments that limit choices and self-regulation. Both problems stem from viewing students as a group instead of individuals, and applying one-size-fits-all approach in instruction. Instruction becomes a transaction. However, the learning context, the environment – whether virtual or classroom – is where learning happens, and where the appropriate learning theories must be applied to support students’ engagement. If instruction is a simple transaction we might as well replace faculty with artificial intelligence. I think we have a misconception of adult students having no need for interactions with faculty. This is seldom true. Especially in transformative learning experiences the dialogue with faculty is crucially important, because of the possibility of life-changing impact of higher education [7].

Adult learning theories acknowledge the importance of self-determination for mature students, but maybe the distinction between self-directed (SDL) and self-regulated (SRL) learning is not always clear for faculty, hence causing hesitation to support learner autonomy. Generally SDL is seen to be the broader concept, where learners are choosing what and how they learn, while SRL is more often used in formal education, where curricula or syllabi are given, but students’ self-regulation is supported by instructors [8]. The easiest way I have found to use SRL in higher education, is to embed the cycle of planning, performance monitoring and self-assessment practices into course design, and provide a repository of planning, learning and reflection tools for students to use both independently and attached in  assignments. Teaching the learning skills essential to mastering the discipline-specific content is embedded to the instruction of the content, instead of assuming that students have learned those skills prior to the class. While some students may have learned the skills, others might not, which presents a further requirement for providing choices: it should not be mandatory to spend time regurgitating what you already know. It doesn’t support deep learning.

Having choices is the prerequisite for ownership.

Essentially, providing choices in a class creates a differentiated learning environment where every student can be challenged on the level of their need and comfort. Challenging individual students appropriately can be done by including them into decisions of what and how they learn, and how this learning is measured. I am not advocating for having no boundaries, quite the opposite. Excellent learning environment defines the end goals for learning and means for demonstrating competency. Often this is done with including rubrics and descriptions of expected skill of knowledge level to syllabus and discussing them openly during instruction. It is crucially important for the faculty to provide choices for readings, assignments, and assessments. Then students can make informed choice about their own learning and afterward reflect upon their own learning and growth as a result of the activity they completed (this is where SRL cycles are extremely valuable)[9].  But, the assessment and evaluation practices must be non-punitive to align with this type of instruction. We cannot punish students harshly for the mistakes they make in their learning, because that will stop the interest to engage in learning process.

Providing choices, supporting SRL, and including students in their learning process strengthen learner agency and ownership. Encouraging and empowering students to learn more on their own can create trajectories where classroom learning is extended to students’ lives outside of the formal education becoming ubiquitous and unbound [10]. Being interested in one’s own learning is crucially important when the goal of instruction lies in deeper learning, in higher order thinking, and becoming a subject matter expert in one’s own field.

Isn’t this exactly what we want as faculty?



Here is one-page PDF about SRL for online learners. Here is a PDF presentation about SRL in mentoring


[1] Patall, E. A., Cooper, H., & Robinson, J. C. (2008). The effects of choice on intrinsic motivation and related outcomes: a meta-analysis of research findings. Psychological bulletin134(2), 270.

Murayama K, Matsumoto M, Izuma K, Matsumoto K. 2010. Neural basis of the undermining effect of monetary reward on intrinsic motivation. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 107:20911–16.

Bryson, C., & Hand, L. (2007). The role of engagement in inspiring teaching and learning. Innovations in education and teaching international44(4), 349-362.

[2] Corley, M.A. (2012) TEAL Center Fact Sheet “Student-centered learning.” Just Write! Guide 23. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education. Washington, DC.

[3] Kahu, E. R. (2013). Framing student engagement in higher education. Studies in higher education38(5), 758-773.

[4] Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The” what” and” why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological inquiry11(4), 227-268.

[5] Eccles, J. S., Midgley, C., Wigfield, A., Buchanan, C. M., Reuman, D., Flanagan, C., & Mac Iver, D. (1993). Development during adolescence: The impact of stage-environment fit on young adolescents’ experiences in schools and in families. American psychologist48(2), 90.  and  Bollmer, J., Cronin, R., Brauen, M., Howell, B., Fletcher, P., & Gonin, R. (2016). stage–environment fit theory. AZ of Transitions, 160.

[6] Kegan, R. (2018). What “form” transforms?: A constructive-developmental approach to transformative learning. In Contemporary theories of learning (pp. 29-45). Routledge. An overview:

[7] Hoggan, C. D. (2016). Transformative learning as a metatheory: Definition, criteria, and typology. Adult education quarterly66(1), 57-75.

[8] Saks, K., & Leijen, Ä. (2014). Distinguishing self-directed and self-regulated learning and measuring them in the e-learning context. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences112, 190-198.

[9] Zimmerman, B. J. (2000). Attaining self-regulated learning: a social-cognitive
perspective, in M. Boekaerts, P. Pintrich, and M. Zeidner (Eds.) Handbook of Self-regulation (pp. 13–39). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

[10] Smith, N.C. (2017). Students’ perceptions of learner agency: A phenomenographic inquiry into the lived learning experiences of high school students. (Doctoral Dissertation).

Author: Nina

Deep learning pedagogue, graduate student faculty. Originally from Finland, now living, learning & working in the U S. Passionate about learner agency and providing good quality education to every student.

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