Constrained Choice Activities: A Simple Way to Improve Critical Thinking

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The use of constrained choice activities in higher education classrooms can improve students' critical thinking and real-world decision-making skills.

8 people around a table. One set of arrows on the table connects all of them (an arrow pointing to each person). 3 other sets connect only 2 or 3 people each.
Credit: / © 2022

Higher education classroom activities can engage learners with the course content, inspire further learning, and foster powerful discussions. Opportunities for teams of students to try to apply abstract, theoretical knowledge to messy real-world problems are at the heart of many productive classroom activities. Instructors often want to create opportunities for student teams to learn how to make reasonable judgments and decisions and then be able to build strong arguments to justify those decisions.

The phrase constrained choice activities refers to activities that are designed around carefully framed decision-making questions that are constructed to constrain the scope of students' inquiries. Great constrained choice activities, which are simply questions with precisely designed limited options, often provoke an uncomfortable but productive process of unsatisfactory attempts to apply abstract, theoretical knowledge to real-world problems and the pressing need to make specific, timely decisions that include difficult, nuanced, and justifiable judgments. In the professional world, there is a time for open-ended brainstorming, but eventually, a set of viable options is identified, and a difficult, justifiable decision needs to be made. Constrained choice activities allow students to hone this valuable workplace skill.

Using constrained choice requires a subtle refocusing of existing activities to ensure that students have the "right" struggle with the most salient concepts. Comparatively simple changes can make a big difference.

Why Use Constrained Choice Activities?

Constraining choice is an easy way to create and facilitate learning activities that naturally drive critical thinking and develop real-world decision-making skills. Numerous studies have shown that creativity and innovation can benefit from a healthy dose of constraints.Footnote1 The best "learning to apply" activities can carefully constrain the student's decision-making space, limiting and focusing the scope of inquiry. This approach can naturally focus the subsequent discussion on the most salient topics and concepts. Designers, engineers, and architects have long known that specific circumstances and constraints around a problem incite focused thinking and critical debate. As Robert Sens notes, this can help students develop "the ability to understand and consider the context that surrounds a problem, balance the internal and external constraints . . . then appropriately develop solutions that aim to solve the problem within these constraints."Footnote2 Students can make decisions and then have a process to help reveal not only their reasoning but also how their knowledge and understanding can be used in service of a judgment.

A first reaction here might be that constraining a question with limited possible choices for an activity may not be as good as using open-ended questions that allow for wide-ranging inquiry and discussions. The logic then follows that the collective wisdom of the group will eventually emerge. The problem with this piece of critical thinking folklore is that disciplinary novices can often take the discussion in tangential and nonproductive directions. This can create facilitation challenges in keeping the discussion focused on salient issues and concepts and ensuring that students take away the most important concepts and ideas (especially in time-constrained or online classes). Students often constrain their thinking only when forced to deal with real-world limitations.Footnote3 One way to constrain students' thinking is to frame discussion-provoking questions more intentionally by using specific, explicit choices while giving students broad autonomy on how they arrive at one of those specific choices.Footnote4

How to Use Constrained Choice Activities

Constrained choice activity questions need to have more structure than open-ended questions. This structure helps focus students' inquiry and ensures that the follow-up discussion focuses on the target key issues and concepts. This added structure also ensures that students are forced to carefully discriminate between competitive options, especially when asked to select a single best option.

As shown in figure 1, these carefully constrained questions typically contain three important parts: a situation description, some information to analyze, and a prompt for action (e.g., a decision or judgment).

Figure 1. Three Elements of Constrained Questions
Activity Prompt | Situation: Description - concrete, real world situation or problem. Information: Something to analyze - stories, images, charts, data sets, test results, reports. Action: Decision to be made - forced to make singular decision - rank, score, best, worst, most efficient, first, last.

The first task is to describe a real-world situation or problem. Stories work well here, since they allow the embedding of multiple concepts and sources of information, as well as different perspectives for students to analyze and consider as they make their deliberations and decisions.

The information for students to analyze and consider can include photographs, medical imaging, datasets, maps, reports, test results, evidence, or text passages. The information provided can intentionally change the focus of the students' inquiry and the subsequent discussion. In fact, an instructor might deliberately decide to provide only a subset of relevant information in order to have students explore specific dimensions of the problem.

The final important piece of the activity prompt is the wording of the action or decision that students are being asked to make. Having students make a specific, authentic, real-world decision is a powerful learning experience.

Consider the difference between asking What would you do? and asking What would be the best thing to do first? With the question What would you do? students' answers could be to do nothing, to do something trivial, or to do something unhelpful or even harmful. But with the question What would be the best thing to do first? students need to discriminate between options, make a specific decision, and build an argument to make their case that their particular choice is the best thing to be done first.

Superlatives are key to constructing these specific decisions: for example, best, worst, cheapest, least, most, strongest, lightest, first, last. The superlatives force students to think carefully when doing their analysis and arriving at their decision. As directed by the superlative, students will select from the constrained list of options, which can be carefully built to present a continuum of plausible decisions or competitive courses of action for that particular situation or problem. These options can represent a range of interacting competitive factors (e.g., cost vs. benefit, strength vs. weight), which can be designed so that the students' inquiry will naturally focus on specific trade-offs or competing interests. It can be helpful to think of this as asking students to pick between different subtle shades of gray as they select the most appropriate balance point between competing factors. The provided shades of gray can be "simple" in that they limit possible choice, but they are not simple in the depth of the thinking that they require students to make when justifying a final specific decision. These simple decisions allow all the students to quickly see contrasts in each other's thinking, leading to a great starting point for classroom discussion.

Constrained choice questions can, on the surface, look like multiple-choice questions— but they are so much more. The following are two examples.Footnote5

  • Given three possible programs to end homelessness in your city, select the program that is the best and will likely be most strongly supported by local agencies and civic leaders.
  • After assessing Mrs. Randall's dining room what would be your first recommendation to protect her from falls?

Specific options work well to direct students toward certain discoveries and realizations, but sometimes the proper use of a superlative can even eliminate the need for listing specific options.

Additional Benefits of Constrained Choice Activities

Another important benefit of classroom activities that require a specific choice is that the products of the students' thinking are simpler and therefore more easily comparable. This makes reporting quite straightforward. When teams make their decision, they can simply hold up a numbered card corresponding to their choice. The difference in choices is immediately obvious, and this contrast pushes the post-reporting discussion quickly to critique and defense as teams—often with a minimum of instructor intervention—try to sort out the best answer.

When the result of an activity is a split decision, the hardest part for many instructors is to get out of the way and let the students sort it out. The moment a team shows other teams that it made a different decision in the same situation, the other teams will immediately ask why.  This leads to powerful questions: Why did you make that decision? What were you thinking? What information did you use to make that decision? A whole cascade of focused, probing questions easily flows from the visible contrast in choice/decision.

Another simple but powerful benefit is constrained choice allows for additional complexities or constraints to be quickly added during facilitation, such as: How would your answer change if oil prices doubled, the patient was pregnant, or this medicine or raw material was suddenly unavailable?

Last Words

We are not suggesting a dramatic transformation of teaching but only a subtle tweaking of the principles used to imagine and design classroom activities. As James Lang wrote in his wonderful book Small Teaching, some significant pedagogical improvements are possible through small incremental changes.Footnote6

The constrained choice activity structure can be used to improve many existing learning activities. All instructors need to do is carefully frame and constrain their activity prompts to force students to discriminate between competitive options and make specific choices. These specific choices—from a list of plausible, reasonable options—naturally lead to simple, easily comparable products of students' thinking (i.e., their choices/judgments) and, in turn, fuel productive classroom discussions.

Finally, constrained choice activities let instructors dabble in the powerful world of Team-Based Learning (TBL).Footnote7 Instructors familiar with TBL and its 4S framework will recognize many of the question structures we recommend in this article.Footnote8 Using these structures within the TBL framework creates even more learning synergies and positive outcomes. Whether or not this approach is integrated as part of the TBL framework, constrained choice activities can be used to improve many existing classroom activities and enhance students' skills as a result.


  1. Oguz A. Acar, Murat Tarakci, and Daan van Knippenberg, "Why Constraints Are Good for Innovation," Harvard Business Review, November 22, 2019. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Robert Sens, "Ideating within Constraints: Utilizing Context to Design Strategically," UX Collective, February 5, 2021. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. Pabini Gabriel-Petit, "The Role of Constraints in Design Innovation," UXmatters, May 31, 2016. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. Bill Roberson and Jim Sibley, "Team-Based Learning Revisited," EDUCAUSE Review, June 17, 2019. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
  5. These two examples come from personal communication with Larry K. Michaelsen (Professor Emeritus, University of Oklahoma), Michael Sweet (Director of Design and Integration, Northeastern University), and Michelle Clark (Professor, University of Nevada, Las Vegas). Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
  6. James Lang, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2016). Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
  7. Larry Michaelsen, Arletta Bauman Knight, and L. Dee Fink, eds., Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching (Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2004); Jim Sibley and Peter Ostafichuk, Getting Started with Team-Based Learning (Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2014). Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.
  8. James Sibley, "Tale of a Learning Outcome Becoming a TBL Activity" (June 20126), available for automatic download here; Roberson and Sibley, "Team-Based Learning Revisited." Jump back to footnote 8 in the text.

Jim Sibley is Director of the Centre for Instructional Support and the Faculty of Applied Science at the University of British Columbia.

Bill Roberson is a retired faculty developer from for the Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Learning at Vancouver Island University.

Brian O'Dwyer is Founder of CognaLearn and InteDashboard and Adjunct Professor at Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University.

© 2023 Jim Sibley, Bill Roberson, and Brian O'Dwyer