Blog the Sixth: “I Will Choose Free Will” … or Will I?

Speaking personally, I’ve always felt better about work I must perform when there’s been an element of choice involved. Even if faced with a range of unappealing options, I still get to make the best of the situation if I get to pick one I find least difficult, or at least arrange them in an order I prefer.

It could be worse...

As I’ve mentioned before in both my previous posting and the in-class literacy activity, choice is very important to me, and has also seemed helpful in my own education, so I believe that idea could likewise be extended to other students. This concept is also one that’s undergone rigorous examination by more qualified individuals than myself, in a variety of carefully conducted studies, so it’s not just my personal belief in the idea and personal curiosity in whether it extends to others.

Flowerday, Schraw and Stevens’ ‘The Role of Choice and Interest in Reader Engagement‘ investigates this concept quite thoroughly. In this article they say that psychologists and educators alike agree on the positivity involved in having a choice. Various sources they have examined state that “Students learn more or perform more efficiently when given choices” and “report more enjoyment in learning.” (94) and that teachers “believe it increases motivation, effort, and learning.” (94) Their work even goes further, asking an important question about choice in reading: is it the opportunity for the actual choice itself the thing that improves performance, or is it the level of interest in what one has chosen? Apparently many previous studies conflated the two, rather than clearly separating and examining the two concepts and possible effects on one another (and the affected individual). This actually caught me by surprise, because I had never clearly thought of it in that way. The most clearly I had been able to articulate on the matter was that I picked the things that interested me the most, and enjoyed my work all the more for being able to make the choice.

You've got your Choice in my Interest! No, you've got your Interest in my Choice!

There is continuing debate over whether or not choice actually does improve performance, but overall attitude, motivation, and engagement with the subject material definitely improves (95).  Meanwhile, interest in the material improves engagement, recall of the text’s main ideas and ability to critically apply that information (96). (As an aside, students with lower interest were better at memorizing micro-details and raw data—facts and figures—but no mention is made of critical application). Interest is also subdivided into topic and situation; that is, the material itself, or its presentation (novelty, structure, etc). Both of these subcategories were seen as positive effectors for engagement and learning.

With these factors in mind, Flowerday et al performed a set of experiments in which they gave a pool of students a choice between two packets of reading materials (unbeknownst to them, the packets were the same either way), followed by an interest survey; a multiple-choice review test; a pair of short essays to respectively describe content of, and reaction to, the text; and a final attitude checklist. A second pool of students was given either one packet or the other, with no choice allowed (but with the remaining materials and procedures the same). The experiment was repeated with a few alterations (reading material and related multiple-choice test questions, with a possible effect on situational interest). Scores were compared for the various tests and essays, along with measures of topic interest; situational interest; and attitude. In either case, by keeping the contents of the reading secret (since both packets had the same materials and were just labeled A or B), this study removed the possibility of interest as a confound, and was able to look purely at whether choice itself was a useful factor in determining student efficacy (and whether it had an effect on interest as well).

They did the math, so you don't have to.

In both cases, they found that students in both choice and non-choice groups scored closely with each other on all tests (with the exception of the non-choice students scoring higher on the descriptive essay—possibly related to the phenomenon of non-choosing students and connection to data rather than critical application of information). The overall conclusions made were that situational interest did have an effect on attitude and engagement, while topical interest was a much lesser factor. Choice itself, however, had very little measurable effect on performance (although the article does concede that low-stakes testing like these experiments may not be the best measure of the efficacy of choice).

For me (and apparently for many educators, as the article concluded), this goes against some of what I believed I knew. The difference between choice and interest also helped me to understand that, yes, I choose mostly what interests me most (or disinterests me least); if I were given a blind-choice test like the students above, I might actually be annoyed at not knowing what I was getting into (or feel like it’s not much of a choice when I don’t know what my options really are). Choice may not necessarily be the end-all-be-all in improving student reading and performance. In some cases, choice might even present ‘option paralysis’ or discourage students, or perhaps even distress those who expect more direct control from their instructors (though this may be a culturally-situated idea). Interest, meanwhile, seems to be what helps students to do better. What can we take from this? At the very least, that educators have a responsibility to lead, not just open the gates and hope their charges find their way.

Not exactly the kind of 'Shepard' I had in mind...

Further examination of choice vs interest is definitely in order, but this article and its related experiments did go a long way toward separating the two. Educators are not one-hundred-percent responsible for finding ways to help motivate their students and improve their attitude and performance, but they do share some of the burden. Choice might still be useful (within a very narrow range, kept in appropriate context, and used judiciously), but at the very least, judging by this study, keeping them interested is a large part of the process.

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