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Student Choice for Summative Tasks

If you’ve been working in education for any period of time, you likely already know that “student choice” has become a favorite approach among educators as a way to improve academic outcomes. When I first began teaching, I thought of student choice in fairly straightforward ways: book choice and choice writing prompts. And maybe, if my class was ready for it, choice book groups. That’s it. Three choices. And these are all good choices, to be sure.

  • Book Choice: allows students to select from a range of possible texts in order to find the one that most closely aligns with their interests or reading level. In my experience, book choice tends to improve student outcomes because, even when they have to choose from a limited selection of options, the idea that they selected their own book tends to make them more interested in reading it.
  • Choice Writing Prompts: Rather than assigning all students one prompt to respond to, providing students with several prompt options that connect to the work completed during any given unit increases their chances of success. Because we all know that different readers see different things in the same book, this approach to essay prompts allows each student to work towards their own strengths and lived experiences.
  • Choice Book Groups: Allowing students to select their own reading groups can be hit or miss. In some classes, students will group themselves with friends whose company they enjoy, but perhaps a bit too much (as in, they spend all their time chatting and none of their time working). But in other classes, allowing students to choose their own groups can yield solid results. Because they feel comfortable with one another, they are more likely to take chances when they share out. If your students are ready for it, choice book groups can be a great instructional tool.

But there are many other ways to integrate choice into our lessons. Designing Summative Assessments so that students choose the type of task they complete can encourage students to work to their strengths in a way that keeps the learning fresh and vibrant. While this approach can be challenging – depending on how your grades are recorded, for example, you may need to ensure there is enough overlap of the types of products students create to allow for a standard grading category for that assessment – the results can be positively mind-blowing.

My students, for example, recently concluded their unit on Othello by selecting from one of five Summative Assessment tasks based upon their own interests. Each of the tasks was different from the others, but they all required group work, presentation skills, close-reading, and analysis. In this manner, I was able to develop universal scoring categories while allowing for student choice. The results were amazing. Some highlights:

  • One of the groups used their own bodies to create a spider-web effect that explored Iago’s manipulation of the characters within the play.
  • Another group created a tableaux/photo-essay that explored Othello’s descent into madness.
  • Yet another group put on a mock trial that concluded with the audience serving as the jury via an inter-active poll.

Each assessment task explored similar elements of the play, but in wildly different formats. Because the students chose their own assessment, they were far more engaged in the task than if I had simply told them what they would be doing. And although all of the groups delivered “presentations,” there wasn’t a single slide-deck or student-line-up in the group. Quite the opposite. Instead, students took the initiative to consider how to use the room to their advantage, how to integrate props, costuming, and staging to create their desired effect (none of which were required – or even mentioned – in the original task instructions). Each group demonstrated not only a solid analytical understanding of the play, but a solid understanding of intentionality and its effect on the audience.

And the payoff? Not only were all groups successful in completing the task, but the student audience was actively engaged the entire time. And anyone who’s ever sat through a standard student presentation knows that keeping the audience engaged is a difficult task. Most of the time, students simply rotate through speakers, reading straight off the presentation they developed. The creative – and choice-driven – approach to the end-of-unit assessment, however, provided students the flexibility, and the motivation, to design a meaningful presentation that was fun for all.

While it may seem intimidating to develop choice Summatives, the truth is, the process can be remarkably simple. Like many teachers, I’ve spent my career collecting educational resources connected to specific texts. In my case, as I looked through some of the student task options contained in these resources, I found elements I liked in some and elements I liked in others, but none that did exactly what I wanted for all of my students. Then one day a lightbulb went off. Rather than choosing one or the other, I could simply mix the elements I liked together to create the perfect assessment. And just like that, I was able to select individual discrete tasks from the materials I already possessed in order to provide five similar – yet different – options for my students to select from. From there, it was just a matter of designing a rubric that spoke to the areas of overlap across the tasks.

But student choice can go even further and require even less prep than that. Inquiry-based assessments allow students to select topics that are meaningful for them to explore and you can even get students to do the heavy-lifting when it comes to the assignment design. For example, let’s say you were working through a unit on dystopian literature. As a Summative Assessment, you could require students to explore any topic that was addressed in their text as part of their Summative project. Decide what required elements their project must contain and develop a rubric that captures those elements. Then, ask students to design the project themselves, creating a proposal as part of the task in order to demonstrate how their project will meet the requirements. Just like that, you’ll have differentiated Summative projects and, since the students designed the task themselves, they are far more likely to succeed.

Giving students choice, particularly at the Summative level, can be intimidating. It requires a release of control that many of us are not initially comfortable with. If you are not already incorporating choice into your lessons, I suggest you start small by integrating book choice or a choice of writing prompts. Then, when you feel more comfortable, work your way up to allowing students to design their own Summative projects. While it may seem scary at first, the results speak for themselves. When students are given agency in their own learning, they almost always rise to the challenge.

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