Letting students choose the contents of a lecture

Last year, (as she does every year,) my cognition professor did something incredible. She allowed our class (0f 600+ students) to determine what the material for the last week of the course would be. We held an in-class vote on it, and eventually the topic of Autism won out.

So why am I pointing this out? Well, according to SDT (self-determination theory), there are countless benefits to giving people choices when they’re completing an activity. In Why We Do What We Do, Edward Deci writes about a study he did on this effect. All participants were given the change to work on a set of puzzles. However, participants in the experimental group were offered a choice about which puzzles to work on, while those in the control group were assigned particular puzzles. As a result, those in the experimental condition (1) spent more time playing with the puzzles and (2) reported liking them more.

As Deci goes on explaining himself, I see snippets of what my cognition teacher did, and the ramifications of it:

“The opportunity to make even these small choices had made a difference in their experience and strengthened their intrinsic motivation. … People who were asked to do a particular task but allowed the freedom of having some say in how to do it were more fully engaged by the activity. …

Providing choice is a central feature in supporting a person’s autonomy. It is thus important that people in positions of authority begin to consider how to provide more choice. Even in crowded classrooms, fast-paced offices, or harried doctors’ offices there are ways, and the more creative one is, the more possibilities one will find. Why not give students choice about what field trips to take and what topics to write their papers about, for example? …

[Meaningful choice] encourages people to fully endorse what they are doing; it pulls them into the activity and allows them to feel a greater sense of volition; it decreases their alienation.

In all of my time going through schooling (and that’s 17 years and counting!), I have never seen a teacher give students choice in such a manner. Teachers often let students choose what topic to do their assignments on, but they never let them determine the content of their lectures.

For thinking creatively and democratically, and for proving that education reforms can take place even in large, alienating lecture hall classes, this action my cognition teacher took deserves her the title of education trailblazer!