How To

Academic Choice in the Classroom

academic choice blog

It makes our job as teachers so much easier when students want to learn. Having students ask to do more, tell me how much fun they’re having, and listening to passionate discussions about content that would usually illicit groans and yawns, has always been addicting to me. In my early years in the classroom, I constantly sought out those moments. Enter Academic Choice. Of all of Responsive Classroom’s principles, Academic Choice is the one that has transformed my instructional style the most.

What is Academic Choice? 

Academic Choice is a Responsive Classroom strategy that impacts the way you design your lessons and activities. The idea is that as teachers we set the goal for our students. Then we give them choices in how they achieve those goals. That’s it! It’s such an easy strategy to incorporate, yet too often we find ourselves guiding students step-by-step because it’s second nature to just assign the work and move forward. As soon as I realized how small the choices can be and how beneficial choice is, I never went back. There are three steps to effective Academic Choice: planning – students plan their choices, working, and reflecting. It’s allowing students the time and space to reflect on their choices that help them pick choices within their zone of development in the future. The best part about Academic Choice is that it’s not something “extra” we have to stress ourselves out about. It’s just doing what good teachers do already, but more purposefully and intentionally.

What are the benefits of choice in the classroom? 

  • Student-driven differentiation
  • Students stay in the zone of proximal development
  • Intrinsic motivation
  • Students take ownership over their learning
  • Encourages self-reflection
  • Much more engaging and fun!

Setting Your Students Up For Success

The first thing teachers usually say to me after we talk about academic choice is “don’t your students just choose the easiest route?” The answer? Sometimes, yes! Sometimes they also choose a path that is far too difficult for them because they are trying to impress me or keep up with their friends. Like anything worthwhile in the classroom, Academic Choice takes classroom management and set up.

So how DO we help our students be successful with Academic Choice? 

  1. Before: 
    • Set clear academic goals.
    • Create meaningful choices. Go over all the options beforehand so students can make meaningful choices.
    • Outline clear boundaries – students thrive with choice, but also thrive with structure. Make sure students have a clear understanding of what is expected of them and what aspects of their work are “must dos”
    • Discuss expectations and the logical consequences for failing to meet those expectations.
    • Ask important questions: How will you know if you’re making the right choices? How will you know if it’s too difficult? Too easy? Why would you want to choose a path that’s right for you?
  2. During:
    • Check in! Pause and ask students how it’s going.
    • Classroom management. I can’t stress this enough. If you don’t have a safe and comfortable work environment, Academic Choice can quickly turn to chaos.
  3. After:
    • Give time and space for students to reflect and share.
    • Discuss the original learning goal in an open-ended way.
    • Circle back to those important questions you asked before you began. This allows students to reflect on if his or her choices were successful and make better ones next time.

The following are strategies to incorporate choice into daily instruction that have worked well in my own classroom.

  1. Instead of worksheets try hanging posters around the room with math problems of varying difficulty.

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Hang posters around the classroom. Each poster has a group of problems of similar difficulty. A student chooses a path based on his or her own mastery level and moves around the classroom finding and completing the problems on their chosen set of posters. They check for understanding on the provided answer keys and seek help from the teacher if necessary. I usually set the expectation that a student must check in with a teacher if he or she misses more than one question on a poster. Students get moving, stay in the zone of proximal development, and practice their skill is a fun and meaningful way.

You can make this on your own, or find one for multi-digit multiplication here: Academic Choice Activity: Multi-Digit Multiplication

2. Instead of assigning every question in the workbook or textbook try having students pick a set amount of questions from each section. 

This is one of those simple choices that I swear by. Allowing a student to choose the questions that he or she feels they need the most practice with is huge. If you don’t feel comfortable with this, start small. Allow students to choose evens or odds and then 2 or 3 word problems. You’ll be amazed at how much even this small choice affects motivation.

3. Instead of essay questions try R.A.F.T.s 

This is a strategy that works across every content area. R.A.F.T. stands for Role (who is writing), Audience (to whom are you writing), Format (what form is it taking), Topic (what is it about?). So instead of a simple essay about how seeds reproduce, your student could choose to write a newspaper article from the point of view of the seed explaining to its peers how seeds travel to reproduce. Or instead of a summary of a short story read in class, a student could choose to write a letter to a friend from the point of view of a character explaining his side of the climax of the story.

raft preview

4. Instead of busywork homework try choice boards. 

I’m firmly in the camp that believes that if homework is assigned it should be meaningful and not busy work. A choice board works for just about any subject, but I’ve found that using an optional choice board for homework makes for happy students AND parents. Be sure to offer choices across content and of varying degrees of difficulty.

enrichment board preview

5. Instead of everyone answering the same questions try choose your path questioning. 

This option can take a bit more planning. Instead of assigning each of your students the same questions, allow them to choose their path and answer a variety of questions that build in difficulty or make their way up Bloom’s ladder. This can be as quick as offering choices written on the board or more complex worksheets. Below are two options that are available in my TPT store.

Reading Questions for both fiction and nonfiction 

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Math Questions for Place Value 

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6. Instead of one-size-fits-all practice sheets try offering 3 or 4 options. 

Another super simple way to offer choice is to give 3 or 4 ways to practice a skill. It can be as simple as printing 3 or 4 different worksheets. Go over all of the options beforehand. Pro Tip: Print each option on a different color paper – kid’s LOVE this.

Quick and Simple Choices

  • Choice of writing/coloring instrument (It’s amazing how excited kids get for this one!)
  • Choice of the workspace.
  • Choice of learning aid. Ex: Math: Dice, A deck of cards or a spinner to pick numbers for a lesson or activity.
  • Choice of partners or independent work.
  • Choice of work for early finishers.

*I am not affiliated with Responsive Classroom in any way.

For more ideas of how to, check out the book:

Learning Through Academic Choice by Paula Denton

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Do you already incorporate Academic Choice into your classroom? Let us know how in the comments!

Academic Choice in the classroom
Academic Choice is an amazing way to get students engaged and excited about learning in the classroom. This Responsive Classroom principle can be used by teachers of all grade ranges. Click for easy to incorporate activities and ideas. Great for math, language arts, and more! Choice boards are just the start.

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