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Offering Too Many Choices Can Limit Student Potential: Finding the Balance

Katie Novak
Katie Novak
May 23, 2024
Offering Too Many Choices Can Limit Student Potential: The Solution

Picture this: you're at a restaurant, handed a menu the size of a novel, and suddenly you're overwhelmed and ask a question like, “Do you have a plain Caesar salad?” The paradox of choice has struck, leaving you paralyzed with indecision. This isn't just a dining dilemma; it’s a reality in our classrooms. In a universally designed classroom, choice is essential for building engagement and eliminating learning barriers, helping students reach their highest potential. But too many choices can create more obstacles than opportunities. So, how do we find the right balance and ensure our students, like Goldilocks, find their “just right” option?

There is solid evidence that providing learners with flexibility in how they reach rigorous goals increases autonomy and engagement. However, research suggests that exceeding a specific number of choices can have detrimental effects, sometimes referred to as "choice overload" (Iyengar and Lepper, 2000). When faced with an overwhelming array of options, individuals can experience difficulty making decisions, leading to frustration and decreased motivation and learning outcomes (Scheibehenne et al., 2010).

This "choice paralysis" isn't just a theoretical concept. It translates directly to the classroom. Imagine a student is presented with ten ways to share their analysis of a poem. Instead of diving in, they might spend too much time simply trying to choose the "best" method, hindering their progress and engagement. How much choice is too much choice? The answer is two to four options, which provides the optimal balance between autonomy and focus. This range allows students to explore different learning pathways without experiencing the negative effects of overload. So, how do we create this ideal "choice architecture" within the framework of UDL?

Follow these 5 Steps to Help Our Learners Improve Decision-Making

Step 1: Define the Non-Negotiables

The foundation of effective UDL is a clear understanding of the learning goal. All students need to know exactly what they need to know or be able to do so they can make more responsible choices to get there. 

Step 2: Identify Potential Roadblocks

Next, consider who might be excluded by a single approach. Imagine the lesson involves analyzing a text passage. If the only option is reading the text independently in hard copy, students with decoding difficulties, visual processing challenges, or multilingual learners might struggle.

Step 3: Build the Choice Menu

This is where the magic happens. Based on the learning goal and identified challenges, develop two to four alternative pathways to reach the same destination that eliminate the barriers. For example, the text analysis lesson could offer options like reading the printed text, accessing a digital version to listen to, sitting with a friend to share reading, and/or using a graphic organizer to break down the passage and prepare to share an analysis.

Step 4: Encouraging Exploration ("No Thank You" Bites)

Just like Goldilocks sampled all the bowls of porridge, encourage students to explore each option. This doesn't mean they need to spend significant time on each option, but at some point, all students should have the opportunity to learn how to use a read-aloud feature, for example, so they can understand how to independently use the tool and reflect on if it’s a valuable strategy for them to explore further – a "no thank you" bite is perfectly acceptable. The goal is to foster an understanding of the benefits and drawbacks of each approach.

Step 5: Empowering Student Choice

Once students “taste” the different options, they can make more informed decisions. This fosters a sense of ownership over their learning journey. The best way to support this is to simply encourage students to explore different options, consider the goal and success criteria, and then answer, “What am I going to choose today, and why is that a responsible choice for me?

Beyond the Menu: The Power of Student-Led Choices

The scenario doesn't end with the pre-defined menu or set of options. As students gain experience and confidence, empower them to propose alternative approaches. Maybe they have a unique way of taking notes that wasn't initially offered or know about a tool to read aloud text in a voice they love. Encouraging student-led choices empowers them to take ownership of their learning and fosters critical thinking skills.

Ready to delve deeper into UDL strategies?

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