Tasks that Expand a Student’s Decision-Making Skills

By Scott Sterling

Providing students autonomy in learning tasks is a key component of rigor. Tasks are simply less rigorous when students receive more guidance and less productive struggle.

There are many ways to generate that autonomy, but key among them is providing tasks in which students have to choose between equally appealing alternatives. This process is not intrinsic; it needs to be practiced consistently.

We’re not talking about basic personalized learning, where a student may be afforded the option of changing their device’s desktop background or their avatar in a piece of software. This is about meaningful choice and its consequences – an activity they will see throughout their lives.

To be effective and efficient, teachers should implement a consistent process, usually involving a decision matrix like the one below.

  1. What alternatives are being considered? Those alternatives can either be generated by the students, provided by the teacher, or a combination of both.
  2. What criteria are to be used to evaluate the alternatives? This is where the uniform decision matrix comes in.
  3. Which alternative is predicted to be the best? Students don’t learn without predicting outcomes (especially if it turns out to be an outcome that wasn’t predicted).
  4. Which alternative was the best based on our criteria?
  5. Did the results align with the prediction?
  6. If not, what was learned through the process?


To make this process easier for the student (and teacher), there are graphic organizers available that let students fill in information for each step.

Have you ever seen a comparison chart that people use to evaluate competing products, such as cell phones? The chart will list features and identify whether each phone includes them. Depending on your needs, the phone with the most features on the table will be the best option. Of course, if certain features are more important than others, you can rank the importance of the features. That is an example of a decision matrix. If you’re using the graphic organizer suggestion from above, you want to make sure your organizer includes a blank table.

The process above may sound similar to the scientific method (hypothesis, results, conclusion, etc.) – and it is – but decision-making can be used effectively in every subject area:

English/language arts

Students can evaluate everything from texts to methods of research to strategies for presenting and sharing what they’ve learned.


Students can decide between methods of solving equations or performing certain real-world tasks, like measuring floor space or computing statistical theories.


What programming language best suits a desired outcome? Which software product would be best to perform a particular task?

Social studies

Before studying a particular historic event, allow students to assess the particular options that the actors in the event faced and which one would have been most effective.

Basically, anywhere that presents a series of options for students can use this organized process. Once the process is introduced and modeled, the teacher’s only challenge is to instill as many option-presenting tasks into their lessons as possible.

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