Policy & Research

Teachers Urged to Instill Assignments with 'Choice and Relevancy'

Teachers Urged to Instill Assignments with Choice and Relevancy 

A new report from the Education Trust looks at the role of two "powerful levers" — choice and relevancy — in motivating and engaging students. This national nonprofit works on issues that disproportionately affect students from low-income families and students of color. In its new paper the organization offered guidance to help educators bring relevancy to their assignments and give students "authentic choices."

According to the report, teachers allow for choice in assignments in three ways:

  • Through content, by allowing students to narrow their tasks for a broad topic to a subtopic or a specific slice of content;
  • Through product, letting students choose their presentation mode: paper vs. slideshow or literary analysis vs. literary critique; and
  • Through process, such as letting students "refine ideas" by working with peers or not, or managing the timeline on their own.

As students get older and show more competency, the authors stated, the range of choices can expand; but the goal is to encourage students to engage more fully in the assignment "because they have been given some level of autonomy."

Teachers make assignments relevant to students when they:

  • Teach complex concepts through exploration of "universal themes" by using questions that are meaningful to students;
  • Use real-world materials and events to explore topics, such as covering World War II by examining current racial discrimination against specific groups of people and comparing that to what happened to Japanese Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor or covering issues within the local community; and
  • Connect with students' individual values, interests and goals.

Teachers were urged to make sure their students understand the value that an assignment holds for them to emphasize the material's "real-world relevancy."

The report also warned against the use of "rewards," such as stickers or candy, or tapping into popular culture. While these may generate immediate interest, the authors wrote, research has shown that these strategies "rarely influence deeper learning."

The report pointed out that it wasn't addressing a theoretical gap in instruction. Citing an earlier analysis by Education Trust of more than 6,800 middle school assignments, researchers found that just 10 percent of those in English language arts, science, and social studies gave students authentic choices. It was even lower in math; just 3 percent gave students choice. Relevancy was also hard to find. Just 12 percent of ELA, science and social studies assignments and 2 percent of math assignments met the criteria.

As they concluded, "When teachers consistently offer assignments that include choice in content, product or process, students will find the learning ownership needed to stay engaged and achieve at high levels."

The report is openly available through the Education Trust website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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