Information that is not attended to, that does not engage student’s cognition, is in fact inaccessible. It is inaccessible both in the moment – relevant information goes unnoticed and unprocessed – and in the future: relevant information is unlikely to be remembered. As a result, teachers devote considerable effort to recruiting student attention and engagement. But students differ significantly in what attracts their attention and engages their interest. Even the same student will differ over time and circumstance: their “interests” change as they develop and gain new knowledge and skills, as their biological environments change, and as they differentiate into self-determined adolescents and adults. It is, therefore, important to have alternative ways to recruit student interest; ways that reflect the important inter- and intra-individual differences amongst those students.
7.1 Options that increase individual choice and autonomy
One of the most successful ways of recruiting any student’s interest is by providing them with choices and opportunities for personal control. In an instructional setting, it is often inappropriate to provide choice of the learning objective itself. But it is often appropriate to offer choices in how that objective can be reached, in the context for achieving the objective, in the tools or supports available, and so forth. It is often even sufficient to provide peripheral options – in the appearance or sequence of options – to recruit interest. Offering students choices can develop self-determination, pride in accomplishment, and increase the degree to which they feel connected to their learning. (It is important to note that providing choices is an important option, not a fixed feature – there are cultural and individual differences where increased choice is a negative rather than a positive influence.) (See also Guidelines 6.1 and 6.2.)
- Provide students with as much discretion and autonomy as possible by providing choices in such things as:
- the level of perceived challenge
- the type of rewards or recognition available
- the context or content used for practicing skills
- the tools used for information gathering or production
- the color, design, or graphics of layouts, etc.
- the sequence or timing for completion of subcomponents in tasks
- Allow students to participate in the design of classroom activities and academic tasks
- Involve students, wherever possible, in setting their own personal academic and behavioral goals
7.2 Options that enhance relevance, value, and authenticity
Individuals are engaged by information and activities that are relevant and valuable to their authentic interests and goals. Conversely, individuals are rarely interested in information and activities that have no relevance or value. In an educational setting, one of the most important ways that teachers recruit interest is to highlight the utility, the relevance, of learning and to demonstrate that relevance through authentic, meaningful activities. It is a mistake, of course, to assume that all students will find the same activities or information equally relevant or valuable. To recruit all students equally, it is critical to have options in the kinds of activities and information that are available.
- Vary activities and sources of information so that they can be:
- personalized and contextualized to students’ lives
- socially relevant
- age and ability appropriate
- appropriate for different racial, cultural, ethnic, and gender groups
- Design activities so that outcomes are authentic, communicate to real audiences, and are purposeful
- Provide tasks that allow for active participation, exploration and experimentation
- Invite personal response, evaluation and self-reflection to content and activities
7.3 Options that reduce threats and distractions
Students differ considerably in their response to stimuli and events in their environment. The same novel event in a classroom can be exciting and interesting to one individual but ominous and frightening to another. Similarly, for some students reducing potential distractions is of great benefit to sustaining effort and concentration. For others, the presence of “distracters” in the environment may actually have beneficial effects: they study better in a noisy environment than in a quiet one. Differences in the effects of novelty, change, stimulation, complexity, and touch, are just a few examples of stable differences among individuals that have both physiological and environmental roots. The optimal instructional environment offers options that, in their aggregate, reduce threats and negative distractions for everyone.
- Vary the level of novelty or risk
- charts, calendars, schedules, visible timers, cues, etc. that can increase the predictability of daily activities and transitions
- alerts and previews that can help students anticipate and prepare for changes in activities, schedules, novel events
- options that can, in contrast to the above, maximize the unexpected, surprising, or novel in highly routinized activities
- Vary the level of sensory stimulation
- variation in the presence of background noise or visual stimulation, noise buffers, optional headphones, number of features or items presented at a time
- variation in pace of work, length of work sessions, availability of breaks or time-outs, timing or sequence of activities
- Vary the social demands required for learning or performance, the perceived level of support and protection, the requirements for public display and evaluation