Choice in the Classroom: Part II

Share It!

This is the second part of a series on the impact of choice on student learning in the classroom. The first part is here.

Today we’re going to summarize a study by Sheena S. Iyengar and Mark R. Lepper, titled “Rethinking the Value of Choice: A Cultural Perspective on Intrinsic Motivation”. It is considered classic research, which verified decades of previous studies with one important caveat. The previous research had established that having some type of choice about a task given increased intrinsic motivation, perseverance, task performance, and personal satisfaction. Iyengar and Lepper wanted to test if this would hold in a study of both Angloamerican students and Asian-American students.


Iyengar and Lepper performed two experiments as part of this investigation. Just looking at the first one will be enough for us here, but I am including the link to the complete text at the end for anyone interested. For this experiment they selected 105 students, from 7 to 9 years of age, in second to fourth grade. Of the 105, 53 were Angloamericans who spoke English at home, and 52 were Asian-Americans who spoke either Chinese or Japanese at home. All were selected from two schools in San Francisco, California, with permission from their parents and teachers.

When it was a particular student’s turn, she entered into a classroom with two experimenters. One was in a corner, obviously very busy; this one was only present to observe and record data. The other showed her six piles of papers. On each paper was written an anagram, a puzzle in which the letters of a word have been scrambled, and one must attempt to discover the original word. The students would work for six minutes with the principal experimenter present, and then they would have another six minutes to continue working on anagrams or to choose another activity that was on the table.

The students were divided into three groups. The first group was told upon entering that there were six categories of words, and that they could choose the category of words they wished to use. The second group was told that there were six categories, but that the experimenter had chosen which one they would use. The third group was told that there were six categories, but that their mother had already chosen their category. In reality, one child from the second group and one from the third group were yoked with one child from the first group, so that the children in the other two groups were using the categories selected by the children in the first group. In this way, the validity of the comparison was maintained.


This graph shows the average of how many anagrams students in each group solved in six minutes. The highest possible score was 15. For the Angloamericans, the condition of choosing their own category was obviously extremely motivating, increasing their achievement. For Asian-American students, the same effect is seen in group 1, which made their own choice, versus group 2, in which the experimenter chose, but the surprise shows up in group 3, in which the mothers supposedly made the choice of category.


This graph shows the average of how many seconds students in each group decided to work on anagrams when the experimenter left the room, and told them they could continue to work on anagrams or they were welcome to do any other activity that was on the table. The greatest possible time to work was 360 seconds (6 minutes). This shows the children’s intrinsic motivation for the work. Obviously, for the Angloamericans intrinsic motivatioin was highest for the group that selected its own categories, and very low in both groups in which the choice was made for them, whether by the experimenter or their mothers. The motivation of Asian-American students was equally poor when the experimenter made the category choice for them, much higher when they made their own selection, and higher still when they believed their mothers had made the choice for them.


To simply summarize the conclusions of this study:

  1. Angloamerican students execute their work better and with more intrinsic motivation when they are permitted to make some type of choice about that work. Even a choice that impacts neither the difficulty nor the type of work completed affects their desire to work, and their productivity.
  2. We should give more opportunities for making choices about their work to all students.
  3. For children from collectivist rather than individualist societies, such as those of East Asia, it is also important to allow choice, though not as important as for Angloamericans. Other people considerd “in group” may also make decisions for them, without negative consequences. In fact, this can motivate them even more.

The question is, how can you allow students in your classroom or home to make more choices about their schoolwork? Tomorrow I will share a resource that is one example of how easy it is to begin to integrate these findings into your teaching!

Here is the full text of the study by Iyengar and Lepper.



Esta entrada también está disponible en: Spanish

Share It!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.