The Power of Choice: Unlocking Student Engagement in the Online Classroom


As online education continues to evolve, the challenge to create meaningful and engaging learning experiences is paramount. Traditionally, the one-size-fits-all approach to assessment has been dominant, with all students completing the same activities throughout the course. This method, however, often leads to a lack of student engagement and, consequently, less effective learning. To counter this, I offer an alternative approach: integrating student choice into course assignments. This alternative student-centered assessment structure moves away from the conventional approach, opting instead for a more diversified and inclusive model of assessment that gives students the agency to choose how to best demonstrate their knowledge.

Recognizing (and valuing) the unique learning preferences, strengths, and educational interests of individual students, I designed the assignment structure to integrate student choice to allow students to choose what assignments they would complete (from a list of options) each module. This integration of student agency allowed students to play an active role in shaping their own learning experience, not only deepening engagement but also crafting a more personalized and rewarding learning experience.

Additionally, this approach balanced the need for high-levels of faculty-student interaction as well as personalized feedback within a growing class size, a previously challenging task. By empowering students to choose their learning activities, it creates a distributed assignment model that allows for interactive, personal learning experiences and variety in the ways that students interact with course activities from module to module.  

Assignment structure

In an online general psychology course, I experimented with an alternative assignment structure that centered around student choice. The assignment structure aimed to maintain consistent interaction between students, the course content, and the faculty, all while ensuring that the limited instructional time was effectively utilized for meaningful interaction, presence, and feedback. The essence was to give students the autonomy to select assignment activities that resonated with their learning preferences, interests, and strengths.

The target course was a completely asynchronous and was redesigned into three blocks, each containing five modules. Students were given a list of five assignment options for each block and were required to select and complete one of each assignment type per block, plus a mastery quiz. The five assignment options provided a diverse array of opportunities for student engagement.

Assignment options included:

  • online discussions journals
  • research analyses
  • video explorations
  • current event analyses

This approach meant that, by the end of the course, students had completed three of each assignment type and 15 mastery quizzes. While all students ultimately completed the same number and type of assignments, they had the freedom to choose which assignment to complete during each module of the course.


The results were compelling. Students reported feeling more engaged in the revised course; this attitudinal shift was reflected in higher levels of activity in the activity in the discussion forums (posting well beyond the required participation). Students attributed their increased interest, engagement, and satisfaction to the novelty of not having a discussion every week. Simply put, there were more energized and engaged interactions when they elected to participate in the discussion compared to previous online classes which had a required discussion forum every module.

In addition, students reported feeling more connected with the course content and their instructor, leading to an overall more satisfactory learning experience. Although they didn’t report feeling more connected with their peers, they did not express dissatisfaction with the level of peer interaction either. The open-ended responses highlighted three major themes:

  1. Students enjoyed having a choice in the assignments they completed.
  2. They appreciated the variety in weekly assignments, stating that they often got tired of repetitive discussions.
  3. They felt like they had high levels of interaction with the instructor.

Student choice: A catalyst for engagement and learning

Integrating student choice into the assessment structure has the power to create a more engaging, meaningful online learning experience for each student. By integrating student choice into the course design, I’ve observed a marked increase in engagement, participation, and satisfaction. This alternative assignment structure recognizes and validates the individual learning preferences, interests, and strengths of each student, creating a more personalized and effective academic journey. By allowing students to actively shape their own learning process, prioritizing student agency fosters students’ sense of ownership and investment in their education, leading to deeper understanding and improved learning outcomes.

B. Jean Mandernach, PhD, is executive director of the Center for Innovation in Research on Teaching at Grand Canyon University. Her research focuses on enhancing student learning experiences in the online classroom through innovative instructional and assessment strategies. She explores strategies for integrating efficient online instruction in a manner that maximizes student learning, satisfaction, and engagement. In addition, she has interests in innovative faculty development and evaluation models, teaching and learning analytics, emergent instructional technology, and faculty workload considerations. Mandernach is an active researcher, author, presenter, and consultant in the field of online education.

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