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Choice Meets Academic Emotions

Jo-Ann Thomas, Providence College

Keywords: Choice, Academic Emotions, Instruction

Key Statement: Including choice activities to promote positive academic emotions in curriculum design can promote student engagement and motivation to learn.






It took the human brain millions of years to evolve (and it is still evolving) from simply surviving to flourishing with emotions as part of advanced learning, supplying valuable data for the brain to assimilate how the external world affects human survival (Damasio, 1994). The five senses evolved as stop-or-go signals for the brain, helping generate emotions, which in turn work as gatekeepers to alert the brain if external events are safe for human survival. The brain is curious and wants to make predictions, which means the brain is programmed to learn. With this understanding of human evolutionary history, instruction is best designed to promote curiosity and the ability for students to predict new learning from prior knowledge. Education institutions are tasked with understanding the importance of emotions in learning and creating an emotionally safe environment for students to facilitate learning.


Image courtesy of Wix.


Providing opportunities for student choice during instruction can promote curiosity and intrinsic motivation for some students. When successful, this may build self-autonomy. Everything we do as a species involves choice. “A long history of Western philosophy, psychological theory, and conventional wisdom suggests that choice is a principal component in peoples’ lives” (Patall et al., 2014, p. 27). Three choice forms can be used in course activities and assignments: process, product, and content. (Danley & Williams, 2020). Process choice can be creating infographics, mind maps, Bono’s Thinking Hats, video, photo gallery, poem, or a comic strip to display knowledge. The product form of choice provides students an opportunity to relay their knowledge in a personal way. A choice board (Danley & Williams, 2020) is an example of a product choice activity that gives students diverse options on either topic or presentation. An example of content choice can be found when altering a curriculum or activity to fit the needs of a student or students. Adding choice to instruction and activities promotes autonomy.


Self Determination Theory (SDT) supports autonomy as a student-centered learning environment that provides opportunities for student choice (Deci & Ryan, 2018). In multiple studies, participants given a choice were significantly more intrinsically motivated than those who did not have an opportunity for choice in a learning experience (Deci & Ryan, 2018). It is essential to note that choice differs from the cognitive concept of making decisions. “Not all decisions involve a sense of choice” (Deci & Ryan, 2018, p. 581). As a result, having the opportunity for choice is an effective teaching strategy that may produce positive academic emotions and enhance learning. Providing opportunity for choice in the classroom can help a teacher to create a student-centered classroom where the universal belief is that all students have immense potential to learn (Schreiner, 2014). 



Academic emotions (Ben-Eliyahu, 2019) are part of our learning process, with early experiences shaping our emotions for later life events. The Integrated Self-Regulated Learning Model (Ben-Eliyahu, 2019) considers learning in this regard, with positive academic emotion and engagement as the learning experience’s target considers emotions equal to intellectual growth (Ben-Eliyahu, 2019). Educators should then realize that emotional learning happens alongside academic learning. Reinhard Pekrun’s Control-Value Theory (Pekrun et al., 2006) connects six emotions: hope, enjoyment, pride, shame, boredom, and hopelessness to achievement. When students perceive personal connections, Control Value Theory (Pekrun et al., 2006) suggests that students will experience joy. At the same time, students can experience pride when they feel they can accomplish a task (Pekrun et al., 2006). Satisfaction in human life takes root in feelings of competence, self-autonomy, and social connection that support the ability to flourish (Deci & Ryan, 2018). Thus, education is a process that can change a student (Quinlan, 2016).


Choice and Emotion in Practice

Twenty-nine Providence College students from two sections of a music appreciation class participated in a recent study conducted by the author (with IRB approval, including informed consent). The mixed methods design collected survey and interview data during one product and one process choice assignment. The gender distribution across both sections was 11 males and 18 females. The Perceived Choice and Awareness Self Scale (PCASS; Deci & Ryan, 2008) was used as a pre-and post-survey bracketing the product and process choice assignments to attain information on perceptions of choice on daily life. The Academic Emotions Questionnaire (AEQ; Pekrun et al., 2002) was used as a pre- and post-survey bracketing assignments to gauge the students’ perceptions of the course. PCASS post survey results indicated that students reported having a more positive perceptions after the product and process choice assignments. AEQ post-survey results indicated an increase in positive academic emotions of joy, pride, and hope.

During the qualitative portion of the study, scheduled private interviews on Zoom using audio only were conducted after the product and process choice assignments. The interviews consisted of six questions to help label academic emotions experienced during product and process choice assignments. The data was secured safely, and participants verified their transcripts for accuracy. All responses were hand coded for themes, which were analyzed to reach conclusions. The qualitative interview findings revealed that students experienced positive academic emotions of enjoyment, pride, and hope for the product and process choice assignments.


These findings have had a profound impact on my instruction. It has allowed me to engage with my students in an educational yet individualized way. My students know that I am highly conscious of the role that my instruction plays in their ability to learn, survive, and flourish. They also come to know that it is not only what you learn in my courses but how you learn it that matters. "In making personal choices, we affirm our autonomy, and we find meaning by striving for a chosen worthwhile goal" (Frankl, 1959, p. 158)


Conclusion and Next Steps

This study has shown that instructional strategies matter, and that educators should consider academic emotions in course design. Incorporating choice into course activities and assignments in this setting supports that these positive academic emotions are more likely to occur. When students have positive academic emotions, there is a better chance that students will be engaged and motivated to learn to survive and flourish.


Further research should be conducted to understand the appropriate amount of choice that should be incorporated into instructional activities to maintain the positive academic emotions of hope, joy, and pride. Choice as an effective teaching strategy can be added to curriculum design as a reliable strategy promoting positive academic emotions.


Discussion Questions

  1.  Where in your course design can you incorporate Product Choice and Process Choice?

  2. What challenges may arise in adding choice to your course design?

  3. How can using choice strategies be extended into ways that you assess your students?





Ben-Eliyahu, A. (2019). Academic, emotional learning: A critical component of self-regulated learning in the emotional learning cycle. Educational Psychologist, 54(2), 84–105.


Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. Penguin.


Danley, A., & Williams, C. (2020). Choice in learning: Differentiating instruction in the college classroom. Insight: A Journal of Scholarly Teaching,15(1), 83–104.


Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2018). Self-determination theory. The Guilford Press.


Frankl, V. E. (1959). Man’s search for meaning. Beacon Press.


Patall, E. A., Sylvester, B. J., & Han, C. 2014. The role of competence in the effects of choice on motivation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 50(1), 2–44.


Pekrun, R., Elliot, A. J., &Maier, M. A. (2006). Achievement goals and discrete achievement emotions: A theoretical model and perspective. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(3): 583597.


Quinlan, K. M. (2016). How higher education feels. Sense Publishers.

Schreiner, L. A. (2014). Strengths-oriented teaching: Pathways to engaged learning. E.B.S.C.O.


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