Using Student Choice to Increase Motivation!

Anyone have students who do not want to participate in class?  Have you tried just about every trick known to man, outside of bribery, to get those students to participate? 

I honestly answered yes to both of these questions at the beginning of my teaching career, causing frustration and disappointment. So, what changed?  A lot! Continue reading to learn more about how utilizing student choice will increase PE motivation in the student. shutterstock 154007330

I teach in a very rural high school in central Pennsylvania and we were fortunate to receive a Carol M. White PEP Grant back in 2010, which was the beginning of a new direction for our program.  We began to make the switch from a sports-focused program to a more fitness-focused program.  As soon as we made this switch, we started to see an increase in participation from our students.

Now that we had made the switch and had more students participating, we wanted to get the rest on board.  This is when we began offering a very wide variety of activities in class and started to let our students choose which they wanted to participate in.  We had the addition of a new fitness center, a nice sized auxiliary gym and of course our main gym.  So, we decided that even with just two teachers (and sometimes one), we were going to give the students the power of choice.  We turned our program into a quality fitness center just like the ones students will be exposed to for the rest of their lives.  While we were very nervous with how this was going to go over, we were pleasantly surprised by the positive feedback from our students and even some parents.  Student participation is through the roof and my frustration and disappointment have disappeared!

Please understand too, that we recognize that some students still really enjoy the team sports and other team type activities and they are still offered on a daily basis too.  What we did was inject our program with a large number of cardiovascular type games to go along with some of our schools favorites, like pickleball, badminton, and volleyball.  We introduced tchoukball, survivor, and right now our new school favorite, sabakiball.  By offering choice the number one piece of feedback that came in was from students who never wanted to play these types of games prior to our program shift.  Because we do not force students into these activities, they flock to our fitness center or auxiliary gym.

This is how we divide the activities: 

First, we gather the studens in the main gym and explain the activity. Then we provide detail to the activities or opportunities available in both the Fitness Center and Auxiliary Gym. Once all activities have been outlined, the students choose which activity to participate in.

  • Main Gym = A game or activity
  • Fitness Center = Cardio machines and/or strength circuits
  • Auxiliary Gym = Spin bikes, yoga, super circuits, etc.

​Example: Our current unit has sabakiball in the main gym, students working out in the fitness center, students on spin bikes, students doing yoga, and students doing a “deck of cards” workout. 

If you want to try this approach, my recommendation is to start simple with activities you know well and that you know your students can sometimes handle on their own for short periods of time.  We trust our students and sometimes when we are helping one group of students in the fitness center, another group is working out independently in the auxiliary gym. Sometimes this is difficult, but it can be done!  Another way to ease into this approach is to only offer two different options or activities. Once you and your students are comfortable, you can add in a third, then a fourth, and so on.

To some this may sound like a recipe for disaster and chaos, but for our program and our students, it is a recipe for success!  Our participation levels are very high, our fitness testing scores are increasing, our own personal frustration levels are low, and more importantly, our student approval ratings are HIGH! 


5 Responses

  1. How many activities do you offer at one time? How many teachers are involved?
    How offen can student change activities?
    Can students stay with the same activity all year long?

  2. Hi Scott!

    Hope your school year is finishing up well! I apologize for the delay in responding! If I don’t answer all of your questions please let me know!

    We always try to have at least two options for our students to choose from every day. When we are inside we typically have three sometimes even four. This all depends on what activities we have set up and also what we see is keeping our students active. We have a PE class during every single period of our school day and always have at least two PE teachers per period. Our high school is 8th through 12th grade and we run and every other day schedule for the entire year. So on one day we have only 9th through 12th grade students and the other it is 8th through 12th grade. On the day with the 8th graders in class, we have three teachers per period. We would love to have three teachers per period every day, but budget cuts have meant we have lost teachers and have had to work with what we have. We have three teaching spaces when we are inside, plus we utilize the hallways.

    We always start out a unit giving students the option to participate in the game type of activity or opting to stay fitness based only. If they choose the game type activity they must do that game the first day to hear the rules and expectations of the activity. After day one, those students can bounce between the game or fitness. When we are inside we require our students to complete a certain number of days of fitness based activities during each marking period. Again, we are all about giving our students choice in their activities with the hope they understand the benefits of the fitness option both presently and long-term. We explain to our students that 10 or 20 years down the road, they are more likely to be exercising in a fitness center than playing a game of Tchoukball to improve their health and well-being. This is a hard concept for some high school students to understand, but we are seeing more and more students getting the fitness bug!

    We do have many students who opt to never participate in the game/activity and who always choose the fitness option, whether that is utilizing our fitness center, fitness walking, or circuit training. Some of our students who have typically not enjoyed PE in the past or at their other schools if they have moved to Midd-West, have really come to love PE class and the fact that they can exercise and enjoy it at the same time!

    Hopefully, I have answered your questions, but like I said if not please do not hesitate to email me, anytime!

  3. I love this idea, but I teach at a small school and I am the only PE teacher. Any suggestions on how to make this work when you only have one gym, and one teacher? I would welcome anything you can give!

    1. Hi Kara,

      I am not how small your school is, but I also teach at a small school. We do have 3 teaching spaces, however, I used to teach at an elementary school that had one gym similar to your situation.

      I am not sure how many students you in class, which can impact my response, but I will give you my best advice. If I am teaching a game like badminton in the middle section of the gym, I would utilize all of the available space to the outer edge of the courts. I would have stations set up for students not wanting to play badminton to do a circuit. Depending on how much extra space you have available, you can have your circuit be all body weight only type of exercises or if space allows bring out some equipment. Something I have in one of my gyms now, that I love, is Exercise Wall Stations for Strength Bands. Gopher sells them and they allow you to hook strength bands to a hook on the wall that adjusts. You can do so many different exercises on just one station.
      The other great thing about doing a circuit on the outer edge of your main game is that anyone waiting to play can now continue to be active. We have our students doing exercises all of the time while they wait to play. It is also a great way to reduce behavior issues, because students are doing something.
      I can answer any other questions you have, so feel free to post a reply, find me on PE Universe or email me at

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