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Giving Students a Say May Spur Engagement and Achievement

Call it DIY differentiated learning: A new study at the University of Texas at Austin suggests students are more invested and learn more when they get a say in class assignments.

Erika A. Patall, an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and lead author of the study, randomly assigned 207 high school students in 14 urban science, social studies, psychology and other classrooms to one of two lesson plans for a regular content unit. In one group, students were assigned one of two homework assignments that were in different modes but covered "essentially identical content," Ms. Patall said. In the other group, students were allowed to choose which of the two assignments to complete. For each homework option chosen, a similar student in the "no-choice" group would be assigned the same homework to create matched pairs.

Two weeks later, in the following unit, the two groups were switched, with students who chose being assigned homework and the assigned students getting a choice of the next two homework options.

At the end of each unit, researchers surveyed the students on their engagement, including how they felt about the assignment, how well they did and how much homework they had completed.

"When students were given choices, they reported feeling more interested in their homework, felt more confident about their homework and they scored higher on their unit tests," Ms. Patall told me. Students who chose their assignments also turned them in more often, but this finding was not significant.

The study, published in the November Journal of Educational Psychology, is the latest in a long line of research showing students become more engaged when they have a say in class. Ms. Patall said she also saw anecdotal evidence of why it's not a common practice: Students felt more empowered by the multiple assignments, but teachers felt less so. "One of the other things that became very evident was teachers found this study kind of an imposition," she said. "They're not inclined to do this sort of thing, because it's more work for them."

Moreover, giving students, particularly older students, only superficially different choices likely will not be effective, Ms. Patell said. "They can see through it. It has to feel like a sincere choice, that they really do have the ability to control their own behavior and their outcomes." All assignments must cover the same material, she explained, but choices should have significant differences. For example, students in a science class may choose to write a research report or conduct and explain an experiment in front of the class.

So how to give students choices while not overloading teachers? Teacher collaboration could help, Ms. Patell said; a group of teachers could individually plan assignments on the same content, and then offer all options to students and help each other with grading the results. "Parallel assignments may help ease the burden for teachers," she said.

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