Incorporating Decision Making Into Lessons

A pretty simple set of criteria

By Scott Sterling; adapted from Gwendolyn Bryant’s concurrent session at Building Expertise 2014, “Decision Making for CCSS: A Cognitive Process”

Human beings make hundreds—perhaps thousands—of decisions in a day, from the mundane to the life changing. So it’s easy to think that decision making occurs naturally in all of your lessons and you really don’t need to focus on it.

Common Core State Standards and other college and career readiness standards think differently. Decision making is a key skill in both math and English/language arts standards, making multiple appearances throughout the entries. And all it takes to bake more of it into your craft is some reflection and intention.

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First, why?

Decision making is the ultimate display of higher-order thinking; using newfound knowledge in a direct way to improve practices, move forward more efficiently, and perform tasks effectively. It touches a range of other academic works:

  • Note taking (how do you decide what’s important?)
  • Making inferences, hypotheses, and conclusions (not just for STEM subjects)
  • Evaluating the work of oneself and others (integral for collaboration)


Decision making appears in the standards for both math and ELA under many different pseudonyms, such as argumentation, interpretation, questioning, analysis, and reasoning.

The Decision-Making Process

Giving students choices isn’t enough to engrain decision-making skills into your lessons. Just like other skills in your subject area, a process should be mastered.

  1. Identify the decision—What is the situation and why is this choice necessary?
  2. Identify alternatives—What are my choices? Are there options that haven’t been presented yet?
  3. Identify the criteria—What do I want to happen after this decision is made?
  4. Determine the criterion of alternatives—How do I judge the choices based on the desired outcome from step 3?
  5. Decide—Judge the options and select the strongest alternative.


To begin, make the practice of this process as structured as possible. You might even want to come up with some graphic organizers. Start students off with an easy choice before moving on to things that actually have lasting effects.

Scaffolding a Decision-Making Lesson

There are some bones to a lesson that truly accomplishes practice in decision making. This is the legwork you want to accomplish before setting students loose on the process itself.

  • Determine the content to explore.
  • Decide the question, dilemma, or situation that will have to be determined.
  • Decide if the students’ role is that of decision maker or decision evaluator.
  • Identify the sources they’ll use to gather information.
  • Select the criteria to be used to compare/contrast alternatives (unless you want them to do this themselves as part of the process).
  • Decide how they can best communicate their decision.


Hopefully, this post has taken some of the mystery out of decision-making tasks in your classroom. Just like teaching itself, it’s not an organic process that happens by luck or by accident. With intention, your students can become much more effective decision makers.

Do you have a great decision-making lesson that you have used? Share your thoughts below. Want to go into depth with standards-based lesson planning and cognitively complex tasks? Check out the Learning Sciences International bookstore for resources that help educators make critical instructional shifts required by rigorous standards.