Critical Choices And Decisions: Part 1

Critical Choices And Decisions: Part 1
Summary: This two-part series explores the pros and cons of the choices learning designers make and the choices they provide to learners.

Is A Multiple-Choice Really A Choice?

You’ve probably been there too: facing an eLearning course with a dramatic workplace scenario. Well-written. Crisp. Stripped from all the extraneous cognitive load. The characters represent your global corporate nature. The new manager character clearly has something at stake in the "difficult conversation" scenario. And they depend on you to select the correct answer from the six well-constructed multiple-choice options.

What’s Wrong With You?

Deep down you know there’s something wrong with you. Yes, with you! Not with the scenario. With you! Because deep down you know that you couldn’t care less about this character and the choice to make. Why is that? You were told they’re a struggling new manager and this decision can break their career!

Yeah…you should feel the weight of the choice on your shoulders! Instead, you’re staring at the six options…you forget about the character and start comparing the available choices. It’s probably the longest option. Or are they trying to trick you? A and C are very similar. It must be one of them. Option C has a perfect grammatical structure, but the last correct answer was C as well…maybe it’s a trap! So hard to decide.

You’re second-guessing your initial decision. It is so mind-numbing that your mind starts wandering...that finale you watched last night. Oh, that episode! Now, why do you care more about fictional characters on TV? It was dramatic. That was a bold choice. Then you remember Sophie’s Choice, the movie with Meryl Streep. She was outstanding. Sometimes we make hard choices in our lives with real consequences. Then it hits you: what if you are a character? In a scenario right now? And some learners are making your choice for you? Is it really your free choice?

Choices Or Decisions?

Enough mind wandering. Back to the scenario. The story above is made-up to illustrate something important about choice. Did you notice how we switched between choice and decision? These words are used interchangeably, but are they the same? Is there a difference? And does it matter for learning professionals?

Choices And The Curious Mind

A curious mind always starts with questions. This two-part article explores the choices and decisions we make as L&D professionals as well as the choices and decisions we allow learners to make.

Part 1: Engagement, Motivation, And Learning Effectiveness

  1. What’s a choice? How do we humans make choices?
  2. What’s the difference between a choice and a decision? Does it matter for learning professionals?
  3. Is providing choices to learners a best practice? Does it make learning more engaging, motivating, or effective?
  4. Can too many choices be distracting? Is there a limit that we should be aware of? Is choice overload real?
  5. Is there a relationship between anxiety and choices?
  6. What’s the difference between real and perceived choices? Does it matter in learning design?
  7. What’s the relationship between intrinsic motivation and freedom of choice? How do we apply that knowledge in learning design?

Part 2: Branching, Simulations, And L&D Strategies

  1. How do we handle the complexity that comes with branching as we provide choices to learners?
  2. Does branching in narrative provide more engagement at all?
  3. How to design branching? What tools can help learning professionals reduce the complexity of design?
  4. Simulations are driven by the choices learners make. How do we make sure they’re leading to effective learning and not frustration?
  5. Are the decisions and choices we’re making as L&D professionals today working? Or do we need to rethink our strategy?

Part 1: Engagement, Motivation, And Learning Effectiveness

What is a choice? What is a decision? And how do they impact engagement?

According to, a choice is "an act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities." So, there’s an overlap between a choice and a decision. But what’s the difference then?

If you google this question, you’ll get thousands of articles that start like this: Choices and decisions are not the same! And then they take you down the rabbit hole and leave you more confused than ever. It is like googling game-based learning vs. gamification.

According to, "The decision is the act of or need for making up one's mind." The word "decision" derives from the word for "cutting off."

Collins Dictionary has a slightly different take on choice. "The choice is the right, power, or opportunity to choose." The word "choice" derives from the word for "to perceive."

Process Vs. Mindset

A decision usually happens after a deliberate process often guided by strategies. Decisions can be used to eliminate some options ("cut off") to choose from. Once a decision is made, the direction is set. Decisions are often process-driven. Choices are complex and require two or more viable options. We make choices based on values, beliefs, and perceptions ("to perceive"). It is more mindset-driven.

True Choices

In their paper [1], Bryony Beresford and Tricia Sloper point out an important factor of choice: "[…] there need to be two or more alternatives from which to choose. In addition, these alternatives should have some positive value; in this sense, a 'choice' between something which is definitely desired and something which is definitely not desired is not a true choice."

In the movie (and book) Sophie’s Choice, a mother has a "choice" to decide the fate of her children. However, all choices would most likely lead to death. There is no desired outcome. Therefore, this is not a true choice.

Are Multiple-Choice Questions Choices Or Decisions?

These distinctions led me to wonder about multiple-choice questions. If making a choice is more of a mindset activity based on our values, beliefs, and perception, and we often just speculate what the correct answer is between the options, isn't it more like a process-driven decision? With the goal of the process to pass the test, rather than to reflect on what we would do in situations like that? In other words, our decision-making strategy is about selecting the correct answer rather than making a choice of our own. Maybe that's why I didn't empathize with the manager in the scenario?

If the point of a multiple-choice question is to prove you can pick the correct answer, then it is most likely a process-driven decision you may not even remember a week later on the job. When a series of choices are in a narrative you care about, with consequences you see (immediate or delayed), the experience becomes more engaging, more immersive, and more likely memorable. For example, try these two different takes on earning enough money to survive: Spent and The Uber Game. There is nothing fancy about these two examples and yet they are engaging because they offer meaningful choices in context.

Paradox Of Choice

Do people like to have choices? Intuitively, you may think the more choices we give to people the more satisfied, engaged, and motivated they get.

The UX article "Abundance of Choice and Its Effect on Decision Making" [2] claims that people do like choices:

"Studies have shown that people do like to have choices. Decades of psychological theory and research have demonstrated that giving people the ability to choose increases their intrinsic motivation, perceived control, task performance, and overall life satisfaction and happiness."

But the answer is not as simple as that. Think about the last time you researched an electronic gadget online. Most likely you ended up with a page with three options only. The one in the middle might have been highlighted as recommended. You had one with a lower price point and one with a higher price point. This is not an accident. Apparently, we are happier to choose from a limited selection rather than facing too many. This is the paradox of choice, also called choice overload. For me, it's like standing in the cereal aisle in the grocery many choices it actually hurts. Some even say it can be a source of anxiety.

To be fair, attempts of reproducing the paradox of choice theory have produced mixed results [3]:

"Mixed results: A meta-analysis incorporating research from 50 independent studies found no meaningful connection between choice and anxiety, but speculated that the variance in the studies left open the possibility that choice overload could be tied to certain highly specific and as yet poorly understood preconditions."

However, a new meta-analysis [4], conducted in 2015 and incorporating 99 studies, was able to isolate when reducing choices for your customers is most likely to boost sales:

In a meta-analysis of 99 observations (N = 7202) reported by prior research, we identify four key factors—choice set complexity, decision task difficulty, preference uncertainty, and decision goal—that moderate the impact of assortment size on choice overload. We further show that each of these four factors has a reliable and significant impact on choice overload, whereby higher levels of decision task difficulty, greater choice set complexity, higher preference uncertainty, and a more prominent, effort-minimizing goal facilitate choice overload.

How Do People React To The Number Of Choices?

Imagine you go to a grocery store where they sell chocolate. There are 2 sampling stations. One has 30 different flavors of chocolate, the other has 6 only. Which one would you try?

In a study using Godiva chocolates, participants selected a chocolate from either a limited selection of 6 or an extensive selection of 30 chocolates. Researchers were primarily interested in learning about people’s level of satisfaction with the selection process itself, their expectations about the selection they had made before actually consuming the chocolate, their actual level of satisfaction with their selection once they had consumed it, and their willingness to choose again at some point in the future [2].

What Do You Think The Results Were?

  • Would the 6-choice or 30-choice group be more satisfied with the selection before consuming the chocolate?
  • Would the 6-choice or 30-choice group be more satisfied with their selection after consuming the chocolate?
  • Would the 6-choice or 30-choice group be more willing to choose again at some point in the future?

You’ll find the answers later in the article. First, let’s explore how people react to the number of choices!

Decision Strategies

When facing a large number of choices, people might use decision strategies to reduce the options to make the choice selection easier. There are some common ways to address this:

  1.  Decide not to choose (maybe let someone else do it for them)
  2. Adopt strategies that simplify the decision-making process
  3. Just pick one to get it over with (and then justify their selection by sticking to it no matter what)

The first one is the typical case of using a consultant or expert to help. The second option is often used in business decision-making, and there are several known strategies that exist to support that. The third one (using the "just pick one" strategy) you might have experienced when trying to select an LMS, for example. There are over a thousand viable options to choose from. They all have different features and levels of sophistication. A team can spend months just comparing them. You may select the top three (elimination process) to limit your options. By the end of the selection process, you might get so exhausted that you succumb to all biases just to get it over with.

Back to our Godiva chocolate experiment. Here are the answers (and a twist):

  • As participants made their selection, they said they experienced more enjoyment when choosing from a display of 30 rather than from a display of 6 options.
  • However, participants who chose from a set of 6 options later reported feeling more satisfied with their choice, and they were more likely to want to choose again, in comparison to those who had chosen from a set of 30 options.

What’s interesting about this study is that the implications of making this decision were minor. Surely, there’s no great risk of loss in choosing the wrong chocolate. And yet, even in this study—in which choice should be more about personal preference than ensuring it is right—it’s apparent that giving people an abundance of choice still had a demotivating effect.

Tip: Do not underestimate people's perceived risk of choosing the wrong option! Icebreakers sometimes drag on forever because people are hesitant to make up their minds even if it doesn't really matter.

How Do You Apply The Choice Limitation To Your Learning Design Regarding UX?

Providing choices to learners can increase engagement and satisfaction. Providing too many choices can lead to frustration and cognitive overload. Limit the choices to meaningful options. Breaking down the choices into a series of smaller choices can help mitigate the choice overload. Have you ever used an avatar with options in your learning design? Overwhelming the learner with a multitude of body options, hairstyles, and accessories may not be the best way to focus on the key learning takeaways.

Biases And Decision-Making Theories

In everyday life we often make decisions. In fact, this is one of the reasons why we get paid. There are several decision-making theories that you should know [5]. They help you understand the motivation behind decision-making, the thought process, its potential biases, and the decision-making process itself.

For example, confirmation bias is one of the most common challenges in decision-making: after making a decision you seek out information that confirms your action and ignore or question information that does not. This is one of the reasons why it’s hard to get rid of learning myths (learning styles, Dale’s cone, attention span, generation effect, etc.). Once you've decided to use any of these in your design you seek out sources that support your decision while questioning anything else that doesn’t. You connect with people who believe the same, you join social circles that support your beliefs ("echo chambers").

Confirmation Bias Example

Years ago, I saw a LinkedIn post about research claiming that interactivity in soft-skill training is detrimental to learning outcomes. Lots of people chimed in and agreed because they had "experienced" it as well... Curiosity is an addiction. I couldn't help but track down the original paper. I was shocked! They did come to the conclusion in the abstract that interactivity in soft-skill training hinders the learning outcomes.

However, reading about how they defined "interactivity" revealed the mystery. The non-interactive version of the training was watching a video clip about how to do a magic trick (soft skill?). The interactive version was saving out the video slide by slide (over 300 slides!) and adding a "next" button to move from slide to slide. Of course, the "interactivity" will affect the learning outcome! Who wants to see a video slide by slide by clicking a button over 300 times? All the people who liked, agreed, and shared the post may just have had their confirmation bias tickled that day.

Tip: Find some devil’s advocates in your organization who can help you with critical thinking and reality checks. Don’t let your opinions define who you are. Otherwise, you’ll interpret every attempt to question your decisions as an attack on your identity.

Are You Biased? How Would You Know?

Reflect on the following learning design decisions. What is your take on them? How do you know it’s the right decision? What evidence do you have for the effectiveness of your choice?

  • Narrating exactly what’s on screen
  • Adding a "coach" to the course: no coach, avatar, or realistic image?
  • Supporting text with an image, sketch, or full-blown illustration
  • "Locking" navigation until the learner interacted with all elements on the screen
  • Immediate or delayed feedback on a pre-assessment
  • Setting the passing rate to 80%
  • Displaying learning objectives for the learner
  • Providing choices for learners to increase motivation and engagement

Are Choices Good Or Bad In Learning Design?

We know choices generally increase satisfaction in a non-learning context (like eating Godiva chocolate). But do choices increase motivation, engagement, and effective learning outcomes?

The following examples show that having some degree of choice does increase engagement and motivation. In many cases, they even increase the quality of work:

Students studied instructional materials under two choice conditions. In one case, students were free to choose the topic of study from six alternatives; in the other, the topic was assigned randomly. In addition, some of the students received immediate tests on the materials while the others took placebo tests. When free to choose the topic, students had a higher effect on the material, showed greater willingness to continue work on the topic later, and spent more time studying the materials. While the presence of an immediate test increased delayed retention, freedom to choose the topic did not. A measure of students’ perceptions of the amount of freedom they felt in the choice and no-choice situations suggested that they felt relatively but not absolutely freer when able to choose the topic. Apparently, the relative increase in the feeling of freedom was sufficient to influence affective but not cognitive outcomes [6].

"Students who received a choice of homework reported higher intrinsic motivation to do homework, felt more competent regarding the homework, and performed better on the unit test compared with when they did not have a choice. In addition, a trend suggested that having choices enhanced homework completion rates compared with when no choices were given [7]."

This article provides an overview of the empirical effects of students' academic choices on academic performance (e.g., amount, quality, and rate of work). Twenty-nine separate experiments within 26 publications were included in the review [...] In all studies, attitudinal comparisons either favored choice, or students' judgments were similar across choice and no-choice conditions, with only one of these four studies also reporting superior performance under student choice [8].

Researchers Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper (2000) gave two groups of college students a weekend assignment to write a two-page essay for extra credit. The first group was given the choice of 6 possible essay topics; the second was given 30 choices. The counterintuitive result of the experiment? The students who were given fewer choices were more likely to turn in the assignment, and they also wrote better essays [9].

What Do Meta-Analyses Say About Choices?

We can’t reflect on choice, engagement, and motivation without mentioning the self-determination theory (SDT). We’ll explore SDT and Keller’s ARCS model in Part 2 in more detail.

However, a relevant meta-analysis on highlights the relationship between choices and intrinsic motivation. A 2008 meta-analysis of 41 studies [10] found a strong link between giving students choices and their intrinsic motivation for doing a task, their overall performance on the task, and their willingness to accept challenging tasks. However, the researchers also found diminishing returns when students had too many choices. Giving more than five options produced less benefit than offering just three to five. The researchers concluded that with student choice, "too much of a good thing may not be very good at all" (p. 298).

Always scrutinize the result of a single, individual study, especially if it is not peer-reviewed and sponsored by someone who happens to have a "solution" to sell for the problem. However, seeing patterns in a multitude of studies, including meta-analyses, can give you more confidence about the value of well-defined choices. For a deeper dive into how to read research, check out Dr. Jane Bozarth's online session How to Read Research: Guidelines for the Brave and Bewildered.

Project-based learning and inquiry-based science strategies are examples where participants actively engage in decision-making while solving real-world problems. According to a meta-analysis, they result in modest gains over the traditional method. However, if you’re after critical-thinking skills, project-based learning is the right approach. A meta-analysis of 35 studies of inquiry-based science strategies (for example, posing problems and asking students to conduct scientific experiments to resolve them) reported only modest gains in student achievement compared with conventional methods. However, the results indicated much larger gains in students' critical-thinking skills (Smith, 1996); this appears to be the area in which project-based learning yields the greatest benefits [11].

Conclusion Of Part 1

  • Choices can increase engagement and motivation for learners.
  • Limit the choices to avoid choice overload.
  • The choices you make as a learning designer can affect both short-term “likeability” and long-term effectiveness. Sometimes these are at odds with each other.

This last point is important. If you’re measured by smile sheets results (how participants liked the training or course), your design strategy will reflect that. If you’re measured by the application of knowledge and skills on the job, your design strategy will reflect that. What gets measured, gets designed for.

When In Doubt? Hand Out A Cookie!

As an example, a study found that giving out a cookie to learners on the last day of training resulted not only in better smile sheets results but also 20% more perceived learning [12]. This is why it is so important in adult workplace learning to measure and evaluate the learning outcome by the effect of learning on the job rather than by completion and cookie-induced smile sheets stars.

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll explore the pros and cons of choice-driven approaches to learning design: branching and simulations.


[1] Understanding the Dynamics of Decision-Making and Choice: A Scoping Study of Key Psychological Theories to Inform The Design and Analysis of the Panel Study

[2] Abundance of Choice and Its Effect on Decision Making

[3] The Paradox of Choice

[4] Choice overload: A conceptual review and meta-analysis

[5] Theories about decision-making

[6] Learner Choice and Task Engagement

[7] The effectiveness and relative importance of choice in the classroom

[8] The Effects of Student Choices on Academic Performance

[9] When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?

[10] The Effects of Choice on Intrinsic Motivation and Related Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis of Research Findings

[11] Choice Is a Matter of Degree

[12]Availability of cookies during an academic course session affects evaluation of teaching