When Choice Motivates and When It Does Not
Idit Katz &Avi Assor
#Springer Science + Business Media, Inc. 2006
Abstract This article addresses the controversy regarding the value of offering choices as a
teaching practice. Inconsistent of results regarding the effects of choice in various settings
suggest that choice can be either motivating or de-motivating. Based on the self-
determination theory of motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2000), we propose that choice can be
motivating when the options meet the students’need for autonomy, competence, and
relatedness. For example, choice is motivating when the options are relevant to the
students’interests and goals (autonomy support), are not too numerous or complex
(competence support), and are congruent with the values of the students’culture
(relatedness support). Given the many factors involved, it is not surprising that in some
studies choice was not found to promote engagement. However, when choice was offered
in a way that met the needs of the students, it was found to enhance motivation, learning,
Keywords Autonomy support .Provision of choice .Motivation .
Self-determination theory .Psychological needs
The debate over the benefits and drawbacks of offering choice in the classroom has
intensified in recent years. The belief that choice promotes motivation and learning is still
widely accepted among teachers (Flowerday & Schraw, 2000), yet the growing controversy
over the advantages and disadvantages of choice may lead some teachers to withdraw
choice altogether. The empirical findings concerning the benefits of choice are equivocal
and confusing. Thus, an integrative conceptual framework is needed that can specify the
characteristics that make choice beneficial. The present article attempts to provide such a
framework, based on the self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985,2000).
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I. Katz (*):A. Assor
Department of Education, Ben-Gurion University, Beer Sheva, Israel
The inconsistent findings concerning the benefits and drawbacks of providing choice
suggest that choice is a multifaceted phenomenon. Some studies demonstrate that it is
associated with important positive outcomes (Assor, Kaplan, & Roth, 2002; Cordova &
Lepper, 1996; Reynolds & Symons, 2001; Zuckerman, Porac, Lathin, Smith, & Deci,
1978). Others, however, indicate that it has beneficial effects on some measures but not on
others (Flowerday & Schraw, 2003; Schraw, Flowerday, & Reisetter, 1998), has no impact
(D’Ailly, 2004; Parker & Lepper, 1992; Reeve, Nix, & Hamm, 2003), or even has negative
effects (Flowerday, Schraw, & Stevens, 2004; Iyengar & Lepper, 1999,2000).
The concept of choice appears in several motivational frameworks. For example, the
expectancy-value model of achievement motivation (Eccles & Wigfield, 1995; Wigfield &
Eccles, 1992,2000) focuses on social–psychological influences on choice and persistence.
According to this theory, people’s choices are influenced by perceived positive and negative
task characteristics, and these are associated with benefits and costs, respectively. The cost
associated with choice is thought to stem from the fact that when a choice is made, often
other options are eliminated. Choice, according to this model, is an outcome of the
motivational process and depends on the students’task-value beliefs and expectations of
success. Similarly, Bandura (1997), in his social cognitive theory, proposes that individuals’
self-efficacy is the major determinant of goal-setting, choice of activity, willingness to
expend effort, and persistence. Choosing to engage in an activity and choosing a mode of
engagement are conceptualized as being affected by three factors: the person’s traits, the
person’s behavior, and the environment. For example, teachers’feedback (an environmental
factor) influences students’self-efficacy (a personal factor) and leads students to choose
more difficult tasks or more complex strategies (a behavioral factor). In turn, choosing to
employ more complex strategies promotes acquisition of skills and can lead students to feel
more efficacious, thus inducing them to choose strategies and tasks in the future with even
greater complexity (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002).
Arguably, however, the theoretical perspective that best allows for a conceptualization of
choice—not as a motivational outcome but as a motivating experience in and of itself—is
the self-determination theory (SDT) (Deci & Ryan, 1985,2000). Indeed, the central focus
in SDT on autonomy contributing to adaptive motivation has been interpreted by many as
the practice of providing choice (e.g., D’Ailly, 2004; Iyengar & Lepper, 1999). In the
present article, however, we suggest that equating choice with autonomy may be erroneous.
We employ SDT and its differentiated conception of the constructs of autonomy, autonomy
support, and choice, to characterize situations in which providing choice may be beneficial
to adaptive engagement, as well as situations in which it may not. Thus, we suggest that
viewing the inconsistent results of studies of choice through the prism of SDT might help
resolve some of these inconsistencies. We begin by briefly presenting the basic assumptions
of SDT. We then review studies of choice through the prism of SDT principles. Finally, we
consider the application of SDT to teachers’provision of need-supporting choice in the
The Self-Determination Theory of Motivation: The Central Role of Basic Needs
SDT is a macro theory of human motivation concerned with the development and func-
tioning of personality within social contexts. According to this theory, there are three basic
psychological needs that when satisfied enhance intrinsic motivation and lead to
autonomous internalization of behaviors of initial extrinsic origin (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
The three psychological needs posited by SDT are the need for autonomy, the need for
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relatedness, and the need for competence. The need for autonomy refers to the need to feel
a sense of full volition and Bchoicefulness”regarding one’s activities and goals, a feeling
that emerges when one’s actions and goals are experienced as emanating from one’s
authentic self (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Ryan, 1993). The need for relatedness refers to the need
to feel closely related to other people (Deci & Ryan, 1985,2000). The need for competence
is the need to be effective in one’s interactions with the environment, and to feel that one is
capable of mastering challenges (Deci & Ryan, 1985,2000).
SDT places a particularly heavy emphasis on the role the need for autonomy in
promoting intrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Ryan & Deci, 2000). SDT-based
research has shown that autonomy-supportive contexts enhance both intrinsic motivation
and well-being (Deci, 1971; Deci & Ryan, 2000; Deci, Ryan, & Williams, 1996; Grolnick
& Ryan, 1987; Ryan & Deci, 2000). In SDT, provision of choice is considered a practice
aimed at supporting autonomy. Yet, theoretical definitions of the need for autonomy
highlight aspects other than choice as fundamental. In this theory and its related studies, the
need for autonomy is equated with the striving for self-realization and self-determination
(Deci & Ryan, 2000; Lindley, 1986; Ryan, 1993). Thus, meeting this need relates to actions
that support these properties.
Viewing Previous Research on Choice through the Prism of SDT Principles
As mentioned above, SDT views the provision of choice as a practice that supports the need
for autonomy, and is therefore cognitively and emotionally beneficial. Yet Ryan and Deci
(2000) also posit that intrinsic or autonomous motivation can emerge only if people feel
that all three needs suggested by SDT are being satisfied. It follows, then, that for choice to
have beneficial effects, it has to be provided in a manner in which all three needs are met to
a meaningful degree.
In this article we retrospectively examine the need-satisfying or need-frustrating
attributes of choice, as reflected in the procedures of various studies. We suggest that
both the mode in which choices are offered and the structure/content of the options can be
either need-frustrating or need-satisfying; this can explain the differences in the research
results regarding the effect of choice on motivation. We mainly evaluate the characteristics
of the structure and content of the options (choice structure; e.g., the content of the options
and how many options there are). Yet in addition, we address characteristics of the
interpersonal mode in which choice is provided (provision mode; i.e., in what atmosphere
and context choice is provided).
This section is organized according to the three basic needs distinguished by SDT. We
start by differentiating between studies that have provided autonomy-supportive choice and
those that have not. Then we focus on the needs for competence and relatedness, and
examine the extent to which the choices offered in various studies support or frustrate those
According to SDT, people feel autonomous when they feel and/or understand the value or
relevance of the task in which they are engaged, and therefore can identify with it. Feelings
of autonomy are particularly strong when the task is perceived as being closely connected
to the values, interests, and goals that constitute the core of one’s authentic self and identity
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(see Assor, Cohen-Melayev, Kaplan, & Friedman, 2005; Katz & Assor, 2003; Reeve, Nix,
& Hamm, 2003; Ryan, 1993). Deci and Ryan (1985) note that self-determined choices are
those Bbased on an awareness of one’s organismic needs and a flexible interpretation of
external events”(p. 38).
Consistent with this view, several recent studies suggest that what students perceive as
being highly valuable is probably not the mere act of choosing, but mostly the value of the
options to the participants’self and personal goals. For example, in a correlational study,
Assor, Kaplan, & Roth, (2002) assessed the types of teachers’behaviors that are particularly
important in predicting engagement variables in third- through eighth-graders. They con-
cluded that clarification of relevance to students’goals predicts positive affect and
engagement better than the amount of choice given to students. Katz and Assor (2003) then
showed in two experiments, that tasks that are consistent with the students’individual
interests strongly enhance their sense of autonomy and intrinsic motivation. In this study,
seventh-graders who were assigned to a class consistent with their known interests exper-
ienced the same level of autonomy and intrinsic motivation as the students who were allowed
to choose the class themselves. Reynolds and Symons (2001) assessed the motivational effect
of topic-choice and response-format choice on eight-year-old children in an information-
search task. They found that choice of topic facilitated both the performance and search
sequence in an information search task, whereas choice of response-format facilitated only
process measures. In line with our emphasis on the importance of interests, it is reasonable to
assume that a choice of topic was beneficial because it was relevant to participants’interests.
In their 2003 study, Reeve, Nix, and Hamm gave undergraduates Baction choices”(e.g.,
how to allocate their time) or Boption choices”(e.g., which puzzle to solve). They found
that action choices have a stronger impact on the sense of psychological freedom and volition
than do option choices. They concluded that Baction types of choices did...engender an
experience capable of affecting perceived self-determination and hence, intrinsic motiva-
tion”(p. 387). In a study evaluating the relative importance of various autonomy-supportive
teachers’behaviors as predictors of students’sense of self determination, Reeve, Nix, and
Hamm found that internal locus of causality and volition were better predictors of sense of
self determination than was choice.
Flowerday et al. (2004), separated the effect of choice on motivation from the effect of
interest. They evaluated undergraduates’interest in a variety of reading topics and then let
the students choose between two packets of essays without knowing the contents. They
concluded that situational interest, not choice, was the variable that influences learning.
The results of the above studies demonstrate that when choice is separated from other
aspects of autonomy support and self-realization (e.g., interest, values, volition, and goals),
the act of choosing is not the major motivating property of choice. In contrast, when a given
choice provides an opportunity for self-realization it is experienced as autonomy-
supportive, and therefore as motivating.
The self realization aspect of choice is captured well by two terms proposed by Ullmann-
Margalit and Morgenbesser (1997), who differentiate between Bpicking”and Bchoosing.”
According to these authors, Bpicking”does not necessarily allow expression of the
individual’s desires or preferences. In contrast, Bchoosing”involves an opportunity for
meaningful realization of the individual’s desires or preferences. This distinction high-
lights the possibility that the choices provided to participants in some experiments
permitted them to pick, but did not affect their sense of autonomy. Because picking—or,
as it has also been termed, Bchoice without preferences”(Rescher, 1960)—does not
affect people’s interests, volition, goals and values, it is expected to be less motivating
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Several studies indicating lack of positive effects of choice appear to involve an act of
picking rather than choosing. Flowerday et al. (2004) provided participants an Bempty
choice”(choosing a packet without knowing its content). This type of choice did not involve
interests, values, or goals, and as can be expected did not affect the participants’learning or
motivation. Parker and Lepper (1992), assessed the effect of embedding fantasy elements
into instructional materials on children’s motivation to learn. Elementary-school children
were given a choice of educational programs involving three different types of fantasy
elements. Whereas some of the participants could choose among three different fantasies,
others were assigned only one fantasy. Result showed no significant motivational effects of
choice. In their discussion, Parker and Lepper address this issue, saying: BHad the range of
options included fantasies that some students found wholly inappropriate or uninteresting,
or even disturbing, or disgusting, the ability to select a fantasy of greater personal relevance
or interest might have proved more important”(p. 631).
A similar finding was obtained in D’Ailly’s(2004) study, in which the author gave
Canadian and Chinese eleven-year-olds an opportunity to learn the names of animals,
numbers, and colors in a foreign language. Half of the participants chose the words to learn
and half-learned words chosen by the teacher or a computer. Results showed that choice had
no affective or cognitive impact. The author suggests that the effect of choice on learning is
mainly mediated by interest, and the fact that the students in both experimental conditions
reported high levels of interest in the task might explain why choice had no effect.
Overall, the results of the studies described above suggest that picking does not have a
substantial motivational effect. In order for choice to have a positive effect on motivation,
the options should differ markedly in terms of their importance to the participants, so that
the chooser finds at least one of them to be more relevant, interesting, or important.
Given the emphasis on personal relevance, how can we explain findings demonstrating
positive effects of choices involving options that seem trivial, or even illusory? For
example, in a study conducted by Dember, Galinsky, and Warm (1992) with university
student, half of the participants were offered the opportunity to select either a Bhard”or
Beasy”version of a task and half were not given that opportunity. Although all participants
were ultimately given the same task, the detection scores of the participants that believed
they had choice, remained more stable over the course of a vigilance task than did those of
the controls. Another study demonstrating the positive effects of illusory choice was
conducted by Langer (1975). In her research, she showed that the opportunity to choose a
lottery ticket increased participants’confidence that they might win despite the fact that this
belief had no rational basis.
Finally, Cordova and Lepper (1996) examined the effects of choice of what they define
Binstructionally irrelevant aspects of the task”among elementary school children involved
in an educational computer activity. In their choice condition, participants could choose
features such as the icon representing them on the game board, the name of their spaceship,
the name of their opponent’s, and their starting point of two shortcuts. Results showed that
choice did have a positive effect on learning and motivation.
We believe that although the above studies involve choices that are illusory or appear
trivial, the participants in the studies did experience them as meaningful. It is possible that
the subjective belief that you can determine the chances of success in a given task makes
the task personally meaningful even if this belief is objectively false. It is also possible that
in the Cordova and Lepper’s(1996) study, the opportunity to choose names representing
the player and her/his opponent made the contest personally meaningful to the participants.
Another possible explanation for the positive effects of choices which seem trivial is the
positive value associated with choice in western societies. Western societies associate
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choice with highly desirable values such as freedom, human rights, democracy and
happiness, and the association of any kind of choice with those important values may make
choice beneficial even when it does not relate to personal interests and goals.
Some of the evidence regarding the benefits of competence-enhancing choices comes from
direct research on the effects of choice on motivation. Most, however, comes from research
assessing cognitive components of decision-making processes in general.
In decision-making literature, an environment that offers many alternatives and/or
requires consideration of many attributes is called a Bcomplex decision-making environ-
ment ”(Payne, 1976). A growing body of research demonstrates that such environments
can lead both adults and children to rely on non-compensatory decision-making strategies,
which are less complex, demand less cognitive effort, and lead to decisions that are
cognitively less optimal (Bereby-Meyer, Assor, & Katz, 2004; Davidson, 1991a,b; Gregan-
Paxton & John, 1995,1997; Klayman, 1985). Various studies have shown that under
complex cognitive conditions, people tend to defer decisions, choose the default option, or
choose not to choose (Dhar, 1997; Iyengar, Huberman, & Jiang, 2004; Shafir & Tverski,
1992). Bereby-Meyer et al. (2004) and Davidson (1991a,b) have investigated these pro-
cesses in children’s decision-making. Like adults, when options become more complex
(i.e., include more attributes), children tend to respond by using the less complex strategies
characteristic of younger children, and even resort to random selection without
consideration of the options. Although the use of less complex strategies is considered
adaptive when decisions are complex (Bereby–Meyer et al., 2004), a constant feeling that
the best one can do is to choose randomly or use non-optimal strategies presumably
undermines one’s sense of competence. Iyengar et al. (2004) term this situation Bchoice
overload.”They suggest that choosers may experience frustration with complex decision-
making processes and might subsequently feel less satisfied with the choices they make.
This may lead to a reduced willingness to commit to one choice. When choosers feel they
cannot handle the choice overload, or believe that the consequences of the Bwrong”choice
will be negative, they instead decide not to choose, or may ask someone with more
expertise to choose for them (Iyengar et al.,2004).
The notion that overly complex decision-making environments are problematic is
directly supported in a study by Iyengar and Lepper (2000). Challenging the implicit
assumption that having more choices is more intrinsically motivating than having fewer, the
authors conducted three experiments in which adult participants could choose between 6
and 24 arrays of choices. They concluded that people are more likely, for example, to
purchase gourmet jams or chocolates, or undertake optional class essay assignments, when
offered a small array of choices. Although this study did not involve school children, its
findings support the view that competence considerations should be taken into account
when one offers choices.
The research surveyed so far dealt mostly with the extent to which students feel that they
are able to comprehend various options and therefore make a satisfactory choice. However,
choice situations might relate to students’need for competence also by offering an
opportunity to increase and/or demonstrate one’s competence in the task chosen.
One set of studies pertaining to choice as an opportunity for competence demonstration,
was conducted by Burger (1987,1989). For example, in one of these experiments (Burger,
1987), undergraduate students were either allowed or not allowed to select the response
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word for a paired-associate memory task. Half of the subjects were led to believe that the
experimenter would know of their choice and how well they did on the task. The other half
thought that the experimenter would not know about their choice or their performance. It
was found that choice improved performance on the task only when subjects believed that
the experimenter would know of their choice and their performance. This study suggests
that choice situations might be more motivating if participants had an opportunity to
demonstrate their performance. Burger (1989), however, suggests that in some situations
the level of concern about self-presentation that accompanies choice can become so intense
that people will perform more poorly or Bchoke”under pressure (p. 250). Consistent with
this observation, and based on SDT (Deci & Ryan, 1985) and studies on the negative
effects of ego involvement (Butler, 1987; Ryan, 1982), it is reasonable to assume that
choice which focuses participants on ability demonstration might have serious emotional
and performance costs. Thus, while students’might perform better, they might also
experience considerable stress as they work on the task and would not choose to engage in
Interestingly, the combination of improved performance accompanied by decreased
enjoyment also characterizes the results of the second experiment reported by Flowerday
and Schraw (2003). These researchers asked undergraduate students to choose how much
effort and time they wanted to invest in a task, or were assigned a researcher-paced learning
environment. The results suggest that choice in the form of self-pacing improved deeper
learning but undermined enjoyment.
One important factor which might determent the extant to which choice is competence
supporting is the degree to which the various options constitute an optimal challenge to
students. A rich body of research on the achievement motive (see Weiner, 1992) suggests
that most people tend to choose tasks of intermediate difficulty, as this type of task gives
them the most information about their capabilities and provides an optimal opportunity to
increase their sense of competence (see also Deci & Ryan, 1985; Pintrich & Schunk, 2002).
In line with these views, it appears that choices that offer options of intermediate difficulty
are competence-supporting and therefore motivating. In contrast, choice options that are too
easy or too difficult undermine motivation.
Finally, it is interesting to observe that most studies have not addressed the possibility
that their participants’age influences the effect of choice on motivation. Two exceptions are
Reynolds and Symons (2001) and Gracia and Pintrich (1996), in which age was considered
a meaningful factor. Some studies have looked at college students (e.g., Flowerday &
Schraw, 2003; Gracia & Pintrich, 1996; Zuckerman et al.1978), some looked at adults
(Iyengar & Lepper, 2000; Langer, 1989), and some looked at school-age children (Assor
et al.2002; Iyengar & Lepper, 1999; Katz & Assor, 2003; Reynolds & Symons, 2001). In
most of the studies, the participants’age was not mentioned as a possible explanation for
the conflicting results regarding the effect of choice on cognitive or affective variables,
although presumably children of different ages response to choices differently and have a
different cognitive capacity to handle them (Bereby-Meyer et al.,2004).
The connection between satisfying the need for relatedness and the effects of choice
appears less intuitive and therefore was not subject to much research. Psychosocial theories
suggesting that cultural differences in the preference for independence or interdependence,
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can help us understand this issue (e.g., Hernandez & Iyengar, 2001). One such theory is
presented by Markus and Kitayama (1991). According to this theory, Westerners strive to
perceive themselves as possessing unique attributes that enables them to stand apart and be
distinct from others around them. One important normative imperative for such individuals
is to become independent from others and to discover and express their unique attributes.
Accordingly, they strive to achieve independence and autonomy. In contrast, Eastern
individuals perceive themselves as being interconnected and interrelated with others in their
social context. Thus, their focal point is not their inner self but rather their relationship with
others. If we apply this cultural perspective to choice situations, Western participants view
having a choice as an opportunity for demonstrating their independence from others and for
discovering and expressing their unique attributes. In contrast, for Eastern participants,
choice might be conflicting if their personal preferences differ from those of their in-group.
Moreover, choice might threaten in-group harmony, as it might interfere with the hidden or
manifest values or goals of an important membership or reference group. Presumably, then,
in contexts with strong collectivist and hierarchical orientations, choice can easily challenge
the sense of relatedness and belonging to one’s in-group, as well as threaten the need to be
accepted and loved by important authority figures.
To date, the strongest empirical support for this hypothesis has been provided by Iyengar
and Lepper (1999). They conducted two experiments to assess the cultural perspective of
choice. In the first experiment, Asian–American and European –American children were
either allowed to choose one of six activities or were told by an experimenter which activity
to undertake. In the second experiment, using a paradigm based on that of Cordova and
Lepper (1996), Asian –American and European –American children played a computer
math game in either a personal choice condition or a no-choice condition; in the latter,
either the experimenter or an in-group member made instructionally irrelevant choices for
them. In these two experiments, European–American participants demonstrated more
motivation when they were allowed to choose, while the Asian –American participants
demonstrated higher motivation when a member of their in-group (e.g., a parent or the
class) chose for them. The results concerning the Asian –Americans were interpreted by
Iyengar and Lepper from a cultural perspective, suggesting that offering choices to people
from highly collectivistic societies might even be detrimental, due to their construction of
the self and their goal priorities.
In another study, choices were offered to secular Jewish (individualistically oriented) and
Bedouin (collectivistically oriented) children (Katz & Assor, 2003). Similar to the results of
Iyengar and Lepper (1999), choice was found to undermine the intrinsic motivation of the
Bedouin participants. Yet, in contrast to Iyengar and Lepper, the act of choosing was not
found to have any extra motivating effect on the Jewish participants. It appears, then, that in
hierarchical and collectivist cultures, free choice situations might threaten children’s need
Moreno and Flowerday (2006) gave undergraduates a choice of animated pedagogical
agents (APAs) of different genders and ethnicities. These are lifelike characters designed to
facilitate learning in a computer-based environment. They found that choice resulted in
poorer learning and less positive attitudes toward the instructional program for students
who chose APAs of their own ethnicity than for students who chose APAs of a different
ethnicity. The authors suggested that when students use APAs of their own ethnicity, they
focus on how the APAs represent themselves rather than on the instructional materials.
They also entertained the possibility that the less positive attitude toward the program was
caused by the participants’dissatisfaction with the APAs as representatives of the student’s
ethnicity, an experience which might have threatened participants’need for relatedness.
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As suggested in the review presented above, it is of crucial importance for teachers
striving to motivate students to consider the various need-related aspects of choice. The
next section presents SDT-based teachers’practices suggested in the literature for making
choice a need-satisfying experience.
Teachers’Support for Need-Satisfying Choice
Scholars working within the framework of SDT assume that teachers’behaviors and
practices have a substantial impact on students’feelings about and engagement in learning.
The theory groups teachers’behaviors and practices into three general clusters: autonomy
support, competence support, and relational support. Studies show that teachers’practices
and the educational settings that satisfy these psychological needs enhance students’
motivation, achievement, and well-being (Alfi, Assor, & Katz, 2004; Assor & Kaplan,
2001; Assor, Kaplan, & Roth, 2002; Connell, Spencer, & Aber, 1994; Deci et al.,1996;
Flink, Boggiano, & Barrett, 1990; Grolnick & Ryan, 1987; Grolnick, Ryan, & Deci, 1991;
Kaplan, Assor, & Roth, 2003; Reeve, Jang, Carrell, Jeon, & Barch, 2004; Skinner &
Belmont, 1993). In accordance with the results of the studies discussed above, we suggest
that applying the principles of SDT to the classroom setting can help teachers give students
choices that are motivating. Again, we organize our suggestions according to the three
psychological needs referred to in SDT.
Providing Autonomy-Enhancing Choices
Theories and research on the concept of autonomy support suggest that students’sense of
autonomy increases when teachers minimize coercion and interference, show understanding
for students’perspective and feelings, provide a relevant rationale for the task, and offer
choice by allowing students to participate in task and goal selection and to choose their
work methods and the mode of evaluation of their work. Such teachers also allow criticism
and some expression of negative feelings (Alfi et al.,2004; Assor, Kaplan, & Roth, 2002;
Reeve et al.,2004; Stefanou, Perencevich, DiCinto, & Turner, 2004). Furthermore, close
surveillance and frequent intrusions undermine feelings of autonomy (Assor, Kaplan, &
Roth, 2002; Assor, Kaplan, Roth, & Kanat-Maymon, 2005; Deci et al.,1996). Stefanou
et al. (2004) suggest that support for autonomy can be manifested in the classroom in at
least three ways: procedurally (encouraging student ownership of form, e.g., letting students
select the media in which to present ideas), organizationally (encouraging student ownership
of the environment, e.g., letting students select due dates for assignments), and cognitively
(encouraging student ownership of learning, e.g., asking students to generate their own paths
to a solution).
Based on these principles, we suggest that in order to make choice intrinsically
motivating, teachers should offer options that seem valuable to the students because they
enable students to work on subjects and tasks that interest them and allow them to achieve
their goals (Flowerday & Schraw, 2000; Katz & Assor, 2003). In addition, teachers may
allow some freedom in the choice of methods of performing the task, modes and dates of
evaluation, and ways of presenting the work (Reeve, Nix et al.,2003). When offering a
choice of various tasks, it would be advantageous for teachers to demonstrate and explain
the relevance of those tasks to the personal goals and interests of their students (Assor,
Kaplan, & Roth, 2002; Reeve, Jang, Hardré, & Omura, 2002). In presenting the choices, it
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is important to avoid a controlling locution and to allow students to express negative
feelings and criticism (Assor, Kaplan, & Roth, 2002). Finally, while students are working
on their chosen task, it is important that undue interruptions or attempts to provide
unsolicited help are avoided (for more detailed descriptions of an Bautonomy-supportive
teacher,”see Alfi et al.,2004; Assor, Kaplan, & Roth, 2002; Reeve, Jang, Carrell et al.,
2004; Stefanou et al.,2004).
Providing Competence-Enhancing Choices
According to SDT-based studies (see Alfi et al.,2004; Deci et al.,1996; Ryan & Deci,
2000; Skinner & Belmont, 1993), teachers can support students’sense of competence by
conducting an initial assessment of students’knowledge and then setting optimally
challenging tasks. They can then help students to plan work on their task, and provide
continual, informative, non-comparative feedback that instructs them regarding components
of the task that they have mastered and other components that they could master with some
Given that choice can be motivating when it is not too difficult and complex, it is
important for teachers who provide choices to attempt to match the complexity and
difficulty of the task (number of alternatives and attributes, difficulty level) to their
students’age, cognitive abilities, and perceived competence in the domain in which the
choice is offered. The idea of matching choices with developmental level is closely related
to Vgotsky’s(1978) concept that teaching is most effective when directed toward the
student’s zone of proximal development.
As for the context in which choice is offered, the teaching mode and classroom
environment should support the development of a firm sense of competence (see Alfi et al.,
2004; Connell & Wellborn, 1991; Flowerday & Schraw, 2000). For example, the teacher
may do well to consider the type of feedback provided to students (see Butler, 1987).
Feedback that provides information for judging progress, correcting mistakes, and
redirecting efforts is more beneficial than feedback comparing the student’s ability with
that of other students (Brophy, 1981). In such competence-supporting contexts, students can
devote themselves to the task they have chosen, without worrying about their performance
level and the possibility of negative evaluations.
Providing Relatedness-Enhancing Choices
In order to enhance the sense of relatedness, teachers can encourage peer acceptance and
empathy in the classroom and minimize social comparisons and competition, thereby
creating a context that serves as a secure base for learning and exploration (Alfi et al.,2004;
Battistisch, Solomon, Watson, & Schaps, 1997).
Specifically in multicultural contexts, research suggests that when offering a choice the
need for relatedness must be taken into account (see Katz & Assor, 2003). Thus, in contexts
with strong collectivist and hierarchical orientations —typical of students from certain
ethnic groups —choice can easily threaten the sense of relatedness and belonging to one’s
in-group, as well as the need to be appreciated and loved by important authority figures.
Therefore, in such contexts it is important to offer options that do not conflict with
important values of the students’in-group and culture of origin, and perhaps to meet the
need for autonomy by relating to students’interests and goals instead of offering a choice
(Katz & Assor, 2003).
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Interestingly, choice can pose a threat to the need for relatedness in more individualistic
societies as well. This can happen in contexts and situations in which choosers are
apprehensive that their choices may lead to social rejection, humiliation, or teasing. It
follows, then, that teachers who want to make choice beneficial for children should create a
context that is accepting, warm, and empathic. Various ways in which teachers can foster a
caring and accepting climate in the classroom are described by Battistisch et al.(1997),
who suggest an intervention designed to enhance pro-social development. This intervention
(called the Child Development Project, or CDP) offers students numerous opportunities to
collaborate with one another, to give meaningful help to others and receive help when it is
needed; to discuss and reflect on the experiences of others so as to gain an understanding
and appreciation of others’needs, feelings, and perspectives; to discuss and reflect on their
own behavior and the behavior of others as they relate to fundamental pro-social values of
fairness, concern, and respect for others; to develop and practice important social
competencies and exercise autonomy; to participate in decision-making about classroom
norms, rules, and activities; and to take responsibility for appropriate aspects of classroom
The present article identifies motivating and non-motivating attributes of choice based on
SDT. In the first section of this article, studies on the effect of choice on motivation and
cognition were reviewed through the prism of the SDT principles. We demonstrated how
the degree to which the choices offered in the various studies were need-satisfying, can
explain the contradicting results regarding the effects of choice. Thus, choice was found to
be a motivating factor in studies in which the three basic psychological needs were
satisfied, or at least not ignored. Therefore, when offering choices, teachers should
construct options that meet their students’needs. In particular, options should be
constructed that are relevant to students’interests and goals (autonomy support), are not
too numerous or complex yet not too easy (competence support), and are congruent with
the values of the students’families and culture of origin (relatedness support). It is also
important that these choices be offered in a manner and context that meets students’needs,
or at least does not threaten those needs. For example, it is important that choice be offered
in a non-controlling accepting atmosphere. When these conditions are met, choice is likely
to contribute positively to the students’functioning and development.
The present article has attempted to demonstrate that merely offering choice is not in
itself motivating. In fact, in some cases it can even reduce motivation. In order for choice to
be motivating, it has to be based on a careful match between the various options and the
students’needs, interests, goals, abilities, and cultural background. In addition, considerable
attention should be paid to the context and manner in which the choice is provided.
More generally, the framework proposed in this article may help advance research on
the benefits and costs of choice in the classroom by replacing the global, and perhaps
non-productive, question BIs choice useful?”with the more specific question BWhat
attributes make choice useful?”Thus, we suggest a systematic investigation of the
mechanisms that make choice beneficial. Further study is needed to understand the effects
of different types of choices and contexts on children of various developmental levels and
from different cultures. Moreover, as the context in which choice is provided is crucial to
its effect on motivation, we suggest that these questions be studied in the classroom and
other real-life settings.
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