When is student choice a good idea?

Posted on 16-02-2020

When is student choice a good idea?

Here’s an extract from a document from the Scottish Curriculum, on best practice in maths teaching.

Children were asked about ways the school could improve learning in mathematics. Most children felt that they wanted more time to talk about what they were learning and spend less time completing exercises from textbooks: ’when you know you understand, there isn’t any point doing the whole page’ (P7 child). ‘We want more time talking and listening to each other rather than watching the teacher at the board’ (P6 child). The school improvement plan took this into account and focused on ways of increasing the use of talking, listening and collaborative group work within mathematics to improve learners’ experiences.

Is it a good idea to give students choice and control over their learning in this way? To be more specific, are we right to adapt lessons on the basis of children’s comments like ‘when you know you understand, there isn’t any point doing the whole page’? The evidence suggests not. Not only students, but adults also find it incredibly tricky to know ‘when you understand’, because of the presence of a number of different cognitive illusions and biases.

One bias is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which shows that you need some understanding of a topic in order to know how well you understand it.

Another is that we mistake short-term performance for long-term learning. That is, if we learn something and answer a couple of questions on it correctly, we assume we have completely understood it. But in fact, it takes more time to get something into long-term memory. There can be a value, therefore, in ‘doing the whole page’, even if ‘you know you understand’.

Could we could correct for this relatively simply, and just say that everyone needs to study for x% more than they think? Probably not: there are other cognitive illusions that cut in other directions. One is that practice is best when spaced out. So whilst we do need to overlearn, we shouldn’t be overlearning all in one session. Again, this is a problem that catches students out, as we all know students who think they can cram all their revision into the night before an exam.

I’d suggest that these different cognitive illusions make this a bad area for employing student choice, and I think that’s probably the case however old the student is. Indeed, the complexity of this area means that students are likely to need a lot of different types of support to help overcome such biases: advice from skilled teachers, guidance from well-designed textbooks and learning resources, and personalized practice designed by computer algorithms.

 I’ve recently started using the flashcard app Anki to learn various bits and bobs: poetry, foreign language vocabulary, memorable quotations from books I’ve read. It uses a spaced-repetition algorithm to tell me when to rehearse a flashcard. When I first started using it, even though I was aware of the research, I was a bit sceptical. I felt like I was spending too much time on some things I knew really well, and not enough on others that I was struggling with. But I have grown to trust it because it really works. I am able to learn things far more efficiently by following its process. I will blog more and in more detail about this later – but the main thing to note here is that it often cuts against my intuitions about what I need practice on. It’s superior to me making a choice about what I need to study next. I suspect it would also be superior to the intuitions of the children in the above anecdote, and to those of the authors of that document who are happy to uncritically endorse those students’ intuitions and reorganise lessons based on them.

Is student choice ever a good idea?

I think it’s a good idea to check a student’s instincts against the data. If we do this in other areas, we find that they do sometimes agree.  For example, some studies have shown that students prefer to read books on paper than to read them on screen. And this instinct may well be a sensible one: there’s also evidence (eg see here) that students and adults comprehend text better when they read on paper than when they read on screen.

These data need some caveats: technology is changing fast, young people’s opinions can change fast, there are differences between tablet screens and ereader screens (e-readers, with e-ink, cause less eyestrain than backlit tablets), even subtler differences about the length of the text, whether you have to scroll through it or not, whether there are hyperlinks or not, and there are differences between adults and children, too. Still, if you accepted the traditional narrative around digital natives, you’d think every child would love reading on screen and would be better at it than reading on paper. The data suggest the opposite.

Of course, you could respond to this by saying that it doesn’t matter what this evidence says or what students prefer – in the real world they are going to have to read online so they’d better just suck it up. However, I think this is one area where the striking agreement between student’s choices and their assessment data should at least give us pause. Maybe it isn’t always a good idea to equip classrooms with more and more devices, and maybe we should think about the value of print books even in a world where a lot of reading is done online. But of course more and more school systems are giving students one-to-one devices, and expecting that most schoolwork will be completed with them.

Ultimately, we need to be careful that we aren’t just using the language of ‘student choice’ as a fig leaf for our own prejudices and intuitions about what is best for students. Wherever possible, we should look at student’s preferences and outcomes together, and use those to work out the best possible educational programmes.

The impact of technology on education is the topic of my new book, Teachers vs. Tech, which will be published by Oxford University Press next year. You can sign up to my mailing list here for more updates about it.