Decision Making

What is Decision Making?

Decision making may be pretty self-explanatory, but teaching students the act of informed decision making may be the most overlooked skill in modern education. Informed decision making requires the participants to use specific research to guide and shape the decision making process. It includes not only considering the immediate and positive effects of choices, but it also requires students to consider long-term and potential negative outcomes.

Think about the challenges we see today, such as people regularly voting against their own interests or high school students choosing universities they will never be able to afford, and that doesn’t even include the plethora of every day social and other decisions. This is not even to mention are the difficult personal decisions to hard questions students will be asked every day. At the risk of hyperbole, the lack of informed decision making may be one of the greatest threats to democracy there is today.

Bring Students into the Curriculum Planning Process

Why not start with what teachers know best, their classroom. Explaining to students what needs to be taught, assessed, etc allows them to feel like valuable participants in the classroom. “Absent from newer middle school policy are the themes of student ownership and connectedness…in an optimum learning environment, students are encouraged to contribute to their own intellectual development” (Knight, 2004, p. 17). Laying out options for the strains of study puts some of this power back in then hands of students. While student choice is an often mistaken form of differentiation (whereas “differentiation by interest” is the more formal and widely accepted form of this), there is great strength in allowing students to drive their own instruction. As Knight states, “[a]long the way they gain experience, insight into a school culture, and enjoyment” (pg. 18).

Dewey’s Reflective Thinking Process

So powerful was the importance of decision making that Dewey himself created a six step process to instruct upon it. It is summed up as (Barkley, Cross, & Major, 2005):

  1. Identify the problem.
  2. Outline potential solutions.
  3. Access and test these solutions.
  4. Choose a solution.
  5. Implement.
  6. Evaluate outcome for future improvement.

Similar to the self-regulation cycle, Dewey’s plan requires careful reflection. It also strongly emphasizes the consideration of multiple possible solutions. An invaluable step in the decision making process.

Using Quizzes to Guide Need Based Review 

Educators know quizzes are important for formative and/or summative feedback, but do students know this too? First of all, making sections of quizzes (or even tests) clear about what specifically they are assessing, is a key component to helping students use them in any way for growth. Once students have been shown where they may be struggling, providing additional resources in that becomes more of a self-motivating factor for improvements, driven and empowered by choice.

Example: A 15 minute Friday quiz covers: identifying the main idea, finding the author’s purpose, using conjunctions, and using subordinate clauses. After the quiz, the students are given worksheets to practice reviewing each of those sections. If they get 100%, they can opt out. If they do poorly, they can practice in more than one area. It may seem simple, but teachers may be surprised how much more work students are willing to put into the learning process when they are empowered by choice and have the understanding of results.

Make Class or School Decisions Together with Students

Teaching students to take polls and use generalized feedback data is an often overlooked part of teaching decision making. School or classroom improvement plans or activities are a great way to do this. Take for example, planning a class field trip. Students can research options, consider a budget, and poll students and/or parents on their thoughts. Same goes for a variety of different activities. It is the process that is important. Having students drive the learning process through the collection of data and consider potential outcomes will help to foster strong decision making skills.

Make it Explicit 

Whatever strategy or system students learn to make decisions with, the important part is that as they are learning, this process is explicit. This allows for them to practice the process of thinking something through by verbalizing it or articulating it in some way, and it gives opportunity for invaluable adult feedback for parts they may have missed.



Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2005). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Knight, T. (2004, October 1). Student role in the learning process : informed participatory decision-making : a problem-solving curriculum. Connect, 149, p. 15-18.

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