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Learning at Home – The importance of student choice

We’re collecting questions about Learning at Home from teachers at all levels, and we’ll be working with experts to help get these questions answered. If you have questions, please provide them here.

Websites listed in this post are listed as examples because they are already in common use in Illinois. There is no endorsement of these companies or their services by the P-20 Network or Northern Illinois University.

While covering the curriculum and standards is an essential part of developing instructional units and lessons for students, all students do not need to experience the curriculum and the standards in the exact same way. Student choice in any learning environment can be a key to increased student motivation, increased creation/production, and deeper, longer lasting learning.

If there is only one thing that each teacher who is creating E-Learning units and lessons should do, it is create opportunities for students to choose key elements of their learning. Choice may revolve around the products students create and/or the resources and processes that they use to learn the concepts, content, and skills.

Student choice can be as simple as allowing students to choose their own reading material – broadly or on a specific topic. Access to the Internet along with a device does significantly increase the amount of choice that students might have, but even without the Internet, it’s possible to provide students with options in their work. For example, schools that are still in session prior to the required closure beginning on Tuesday, March 17th and that have library books available for check-out can allow students to check out books based on whatever topics they would like, including fiction or non-fiction books.


Creating open-ended projects that allow students to be assessed similarly but on a variety of different products. Products might range from a video or podcast that students create to a more traditional academic paper to a presentation (to their classmates or a more authentic audience, such as a school board or municipal board) to a persuasive policy letter sent to a legislator or bureaucrat. By moving away from a traditional test as an end-of-unit summative assessment, students who will have more opportunities to be creative and engage with their learning in a manner of their own choosing. Such projects also provide outstanding opportunities through academic coursework and even via E-Learning for students to learn and practice the Cross-Sector Essential Employability Competencies. (See page 6 of this document on the Illinois College and Career Pathway Endorsements.)

Even a series of smaller tasks can still provide students with choice as evidenced by this example of a Choice Board pictured below. This choice board had a total of 9 activities, and students are required to do 4 of them – 1 per day over 4 days. This provides students with a significant level of choice as they will do less than half of the activities offered to them. In this particular board, there is a significant emphasis on traditional E-Learning activities that require a device and a robust Internet and wireless network connection. In many cases, these prerequisites may be a barrier to completing the activities. As always, it is critical that educators know their students and design accordingly.

Choice Board

Assessment on this wide range of products will typically be based on a rubric or checklist that articulates the appropriate performance levels of content knowledge and skill attainment on a specific project. It is important to bear in mind that E-Learning activities should be activities that students can complete independently or with remote teacher support–rather than parent support. Likewise, assessment should consider what level of performance students can be expected to achieve independently via E-Learning. Obviously, at the high school and postsecondary levels, there are entire courses that have moved to E-Learning, and like with any class, in some cases, students learn a significant amount and are very engaged, and in other cases, that is not so. As teachers embark on E-Learning and are new to leading students through E-Learning and have not necessarily considered teaching through E-Learning until days before needing to implement, there will be significant learning for everyone. The best advice in this case is to be flexible and realistic with the expectations that are built into assessments as one develops experience with the structure and process and as one collaborates with colleagues on seeing the results of these efforts.

Resources and processes for learning

When connecting to curriculum and standards to current events, a wide range of resources are available to students to support their learning. By connecting curriculum to current events, news sites, while in some cases limited by paywall access, provide a wealth of options for students to read, watch, listen to, write about, and integrate into their own thoughts. Traditional news sites from major media companies are accessible to students as our platforms designed specifically for schools and for students, such as newsela, which is pictured below. Inherent in everything from traditional newspapers to modern media websites is that there are a wide range of articles from which students can choose to engage.


Similarly, if your students have access to electronic books through your school library and through a service like myON or Overdrive. Likewise, if students have public library cards, there are also electronic books available from many public libraries. For accessing both fiction and non-fiction books, having access to electronic books provides tremendous choice to students regarding what they read and learn. For example, the image below represents just a small slice of books available from one library by one author.


Similar to the range of options available for choice with electronic books, libraries that are able to subscribe to online databases offer students a wide range of articles from which they can learn. In many schools, it is common to see students using such databases as early as the intermediate grade levels. As the teacher of an E-Learning class, it may be necessary to provide instruction to students on how best to use a particular database and/or which databases will be most useful for which purposes. This is also a great opportunity to utilize instructional resources that can be developed by school librarians in one’s own school or that have been published across the Internet.

Library Research Databases

Finally, when students are conducting their own research, they will not only be able to utilize electronic books and library databases, but they will also be able to take advantage of an Internet full of websites. As students come across different websites, there are inherent challenges for students and teachers ranging from the text complexity of the website to the validity of the information on the website. Due to these factors as well as the need to help students stay on-track with their progress within an independent or collaborative research project, ongoing coaching from the teacher is necessary. Fortunately, online text and video chat tools help make this somewhat manageable and more like these same instructional strategies would be in a face-to-face classroom.