PBL Pro Tips by John Larmer: What is the Difference Between Student Voice and Student Choice in PBL?

People in project-based learning circles have been using the term “voice & choice” for a long time. The two words were usually lumped together since they seemed like similar ideas and, well, it was a catchy rhyme. I know I used to lump them together, going back to a 2010 article where I and John Mergendoller listed it as one of the “Seven Essentials for Project-Based Learning.”


But in recent years I and my former colleagues came to recognize that student voice, though related to choice, has particular aspects that deserve to be lifted up on their own. 


What is the value of student voice and choice? I see three overlapping reasons for it:

  1. It improves motivation. According to the High-Quality PBL Framework’s research brief, “making choices validates the basic psychological drives of autonomy and competence, contributing to intrinsic motivation.” Many students feel like school is done “to” them and their own interests and lives are not relevant. Voice and choice provide a sense of ownership. 
  2. It helps build a student-centered learning environment. Many schools and districts say they want this kind of environment, but what this really means is often unclear, or it’s only lip service. True student-centered learning has voice and choice as key components.
  3. It builds a sense of agency in students. Students feel they have some control over their learning and move from engagement to empowerment, in the words of John Spencer. They learn habits useful in life and careers (such as taking initiative) and gain confidence in using their own judgment to solve problems and improve their work.

Examples of Student Choice in PBL

Student choice is fairly self-explanatory and familiar to teachers in traditional classrooms as well as those using project-based learning. In PBL, the basic goal is to provide as many opportunities for students to make choices as possible and appropriate–given the curriculum and standards, and with some of the cautions and limits explained at the end of this post.


In PBL, student choice can include any of all of the following:

  • What topics to explore
  • What questions do they want to find answers to
  • What products to create (from a provided list, or by suggesting ideas of their own)
  • Who to work with (although teachers should manage the process for forming teams)
  • What resources to use (websites, library resources, outside experts, teacher and textbooks, etc.)
  • What books to read
  • How to make their work public and for what audience
  • How to use their time
  • Where to work (e.g., sit or stand; in a particular place in the classroom; a place outside the classroom; at home or in school)
  • What tech tools to use (for creating products, collaborating with others, sharing work)
  • How they will be assessed (e.g., co-create rubrics with the teacher; identify criteria they would like feedback on; decide if they want written or oral feedback)
  • How they will use feedback on their work-in-progress.


Examples of Student Voice in PBL

Student voice is also a feature of some traditional classrooms, although in all too many, students feel that their authentic, “real” voices are not honored or heard. Instead, they get the message that they should speak in a “school” voice–say what the teacher wants to hear, not offer their own ideas, simply answer questions posed by adults or textbooks. In PBL, honoring student voice is a deep part of the culture of the classroom. It’s manifested in how students and teachers interact, what’s on the classroom walls, and the routines for thinking and working.


In PBL, student voice can include and of all of the following:

  • Allowing students to identify issues and concerns to explore in projects.
  • Designing their own project.
  • Creating products that allow students to share their ideas and solutions with a public audience (e.g., podcasts, presentations, writing, videos).
  • Knowing that there are several possible ways for students to complete a project; it is open-ended, with no single “right answer.” 
  • Knowing their classroom culture encourages and makes it safe for them to express their ideas and honest opinions.
  • Contributing to decision-making in the classroom.
  • Having input into classroom norms and processes.

Cautions and Limits on Voice and Choice

How many choices students have, and what opportunities are provided for student voice, are governed by several factors. One is the age of the students and their experience with PBL. Younger students or those who are new to a PBL environment should be given fewer choices, since too many can be paralyzing. Some structure and scaffolding are needed, such as providing (or creating with student input) a menu of possible products in a project. Remember also that, in the real world, people have to work within constraints such as time, budget, materials, and so on.


Another limiting factor is the nature of the project. If the project involves an end-user of a product or service, the students’ choice of products may be limited based on what that person needs. For example, if a project is to design a bridge over a creek in the community, the students’ “client” may need the product to be a set of drawings and a model–not a video.


A final factor is you, the teacher; how much student voice and choice are you comfortable with? How much can you manage, especially if you’re new to PBL? Can you provide the scaffolding students will need? Can you build the right classroom culture, or will it take time? When starting out in a PBL journey, I always advise teachers to start with small steps. Don’t plunge into the deep end of the pool right away. Build your PBL skills and those of your students over time, always moving toward greater levels of voice and choice, and you’ll see the rewards in the work and faces of your students!


For more on student voice and choice, see “Why Project-Based Learning Works” by Jacie Maslyk on the Defined Learning blog.

If you have a question relating to your use of PBL in your classroom or school, please share your question with John and he may create a Pro-Tips blog to support your work and the work of educators everywhere. Email John Larmer at john_larmer@definedlearning.com,.

About the Author:  

John Larmer is a project-based learning expert. In his 20 years at the Buck Institute for Education/PBLWorks, he co-developed the model for Gold Standard PBL, authored several books and many blog posts, and contributed to curriculum and professional development. John is now the Senior PBL Advisor at Defined Learning.


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