Skip to main content
Mental Wellbeing

Education for Mental Health Toolkit - Provide scaffolded control of assessment

Providing students with choice, in relation to assessments, can lead to increased motivation, students finding more meaning in their discipline and purpose in their learning activities (1-2).

Provide scaffolded control of assessment

Providing students with choice, in relation to assessments, can lead to increased motivation, students finding more meaning in their discipline and purpose in their learning activities (1-2). However, there is a balance to be struck within this approach, as research also shows that too great a level of choice can decrease motivation and cause unhelpful anxiety (3-4).  

Research into psychological responses to choice highlights that, while no or very limited choice can be bad for our wellbeing, too great a level of choice can leave us feeling overwhelmed, anxious and fatigued (4-5). Key to finding the ideal balance is an individual’s level of control in making a choice, the resources available to call upon in choice making, the number of choices involved, their self-perceived competence to make a particular choice, and the perceived consequences related to the choice (4). 

Education for Mental Health

Download a digital copy of the full toolkit, the staff development toolkit and case studies.

Download the report

For students, this means that choice will be beneficial if they properly understand the options before them, feel and are properly prepared to make a choice, have the necessary insight to understand the implications of the choices they are making and do not overly fear the consequences of their choice (1-2, 6-7). This then suggests that students must be supported to develop the ability to make good choices that can support their ongoing learning.  

Without this preparation, students may not know how to make good choices and may evaluate choices in ways that are unhelpful. For instance, rather than seeking the option that is most meaningful or will most support their learning they may instead look for the choice that will most please their academic, is easiest, is most likely to provide a good grade, be familiar to them or they may become paralysed in trying to identify the ‘right’ or ‘perfect’ choice (8). 

Choosing what to learn, what to make the focus of an assessment, or what type of assessment task to pursue, involves insight and skill. Consistent with the principles of scaffolded learning, this insight and skill can be explicitly taught and learnt (9). This preparation can assist students to take a learning focussed approach to assessment choice. It can introduce them to processes and questions that can assist them to evaluate choice and select options most likely to support their ongoing learning. This preparation can form part of meta-learning elements of the curriculum and be reinforced by feedback and feedforward on the wisdom of the choices they have made to challenge them to demonstrate their learning through different assessment tasks.

Building on this, students can be offered controlled choice over assessments that is gradually extended as they move through each level of study. This may move from a narrow choice of topic in response to one question, to a choice of questions, to a choice over assessment task selected, through to the student’s final year independent study or research project, in which they have maximum control. Building students’ ability in this way, will mean that by their final year, they are more likely to be equipped as autonomous, independent learners, capable of shaping their own enquiry, and managing challenge that helps them to move out of their comfort zone. 

In this way, choice can also play a positive role in supporting students’ learning and wellbeing. Students will be positioned to enhance the level of meaning they derive from their work, making it more likely that they will adopt deeper learning approaches and develop higher levels skills and a greater level of fulfilment. Being equipped to successfully take control of their learning, can also increase their sense of self-efficacy and the enjoyment they gain from their learning. 

Key lessons 

  • Providing students with choice in relation to assessment tasks, conditions, or timings, can lead to increased motivation and students finding more meaning in their discipline.   
  • However, research also shows that too great a level of choice can decrease motivation and cause unhelpful anxiety. 
  • For choice to be beneficial for learning, students must be prepared over time to make choices that support their learning. 
  • Developing students’ ability to make good choices can be scaffolded across the curriculum, with the range of choices be gradually extended until students are able to take control as skilled independent learners. 

Top Tips 

  • Use meta-learning to help students develop insights into how to make choices that support their learning and wellbeing.  
  • Support this learning through feedback on the choices students have made. 
  • Provide little choice to begin with and then gradually extend choice over the course of a degree as students’ ability to make good choices develops. 
  • Remind students in assignment briefs about the importance of taking a learning focussed approach to assessment and finding meaning in their choice of assessment.
Buff line
  1. Hanewicz C, Platt A, Arendt A. Creating a learner-centered teaching environment using student choice in assignments. Distance Education. 2017 Sep 2;38(3):273-87. Available from: doi: doi.10.1080/01587919.2017.1369349
  2. Adams N, Little TD, Ryan RM. Self-determination theory. In: Development of self-determination through the life-course 2017 (pp. 47-54). Springer, Dordrecht.
  3. Ackerman DS, Gross BL, Sawhney Celly K. Having many choice options seems like a great idea, but... Student perceptions about the level of choice for a project topic in a marketing course. Journal of Marketing Education. 2014 Dec;36(3):221-32. Available from: doi: 10.1177/0273475314522038 
  4. Schwartz B. The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York: Ecco. 2004.
  5. Vohs KD, Baumeister RF, Twenge JM, Schmeichel BJ, Tice DM, Crocker J. Decision fatigue exhausts self-regulatory resources—But so does accommodating to unchosen alternatives. 2005.
  6. Arendt A, Trego A, Allred J. Students reach beyond expectations with cafeteria style grading. Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education. 2016 Feb 1. Available from: doi: 10.1080/01587919.2017.1369349 
  7. Jopp R, Cohen J. Choose your own assessment–assessment choice for students in online higher education. Teaching in Higher Education. 2020 Mar 19:1-8. Available from: doi: 10.1080/13562517.2020.1742680 
  8. Kirschner PA, Sweller J. Richard e. Clark, Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist. 2006;41:2. Available from: doi: 10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1
  9. Kift S. A decade of transition pedagogy: A quantum leap in conceptualising the first year experience. HERDSA Review of Higher Education. 2015 Jul;2(1):51-86. Available from: