On Promoting Successful Navigation of Choice and Ambiguity While Acknowledging the Paradox of Choice

Silhouette of a woman making a decision
Image by chenspec from Pixabay

ISTE Standard for Students 4D recommends that “Students exhibit a tolerance for ambiguity, perseverance and the capacity to work with open-ended problems.” 

This week I am interested in how to promote those characteristics in an online higher ed learning environment. From my experience, it’s a fine line between giving students freedom one hand, and causing frustration and uncertainty for students because of ambiguity that comes with freedom on the other hand.

Unintended Consequences of Student Freedom

As my colleagues and I have previously discussed in this course, we are interested in “voice and choice” in higher ed. Some of us have observed in our classrooms from K-higher ed that many of our students demonstrate a hesitancy or even an unwillingness to embrace ambiguity and open-ended situations when it comes to online classwork. These students tend to bristle at assignments that give freedom in either topic choice or creating the work product. Sometimes it feels as if they want so much guidance that it’s almost a “paint by numbers” experience. 

I suspect that there are several reasons for this, including:

  • Conditioning of what education should look and feel like;
  • Lack of time or energy to fully invest in assignments or projects;
  • Course and assignment design being confusing instead of empowering;
  • Lack of trust in the professor;
  • Embarrassment of trying something new in front of peers and professors
  • Feeling ill-equipped;
  • What I’ll call “learning credibility confusion” or “Subject Matter Expert (SME) dislocation” – aren’t the professors supposed to know what we’re supposed to know? Isn’t that what they’re paid for?

However, in this post, I would like to learn more about best practices for helping adults better handle ambiguous and open-ended projects through course or lesson design in higher ed. In other words, how can the course structure itself provide freedom and practice in navigating ambiguity while also staying on the appropriate side of the frustration line?

Select Research on Trouble with Choice and Ambiguity

Thankfully, psychological research has been on “the paradox of choice,” a counterintuitive proposition for many Americans. And especially Texans! As psychologist Barry Schwartz (2005) has demonstrated, we treasure and protect our freedoms, but too much choice makes us more paralyzed and more dissatisfied.

We also know that “decision fatigue” prevents humans from making good decisions all day long; Psychology Today’s Veronika Tait (2020) summarizes that we only have “a finite store of mental energy” with which to make decisions. Once it’s out, our will-power and decision-making skills drop.

Beymer & Thomson (2015) performed research in specific to the classroom and, summarizing Inyengr and Leper’s 2000 work, found that:

Too much choice could create feelings of regret that stem from being overwhelmed. Furthermore, individuals may be more inclined to choose from a smaller set of items, rather than a larger set. This phenomenon is termed ‘choice overload’ (p. 111).

This is only a small sampling of the relevant psychology and literature regarding this matter, but it does align with my own perceptions of adult learners.

It makes sense that an adult learner juggling obligations with family, work, social groups, and more will have less mental capacity to continue making good decisions. It seems logical to assume they would be less likely to enjoy too much freedom or ambiguity. The aforementioned “paint by numbers” approach could feel better, but that strategy isn’t necessarily best in meeting ISTE standards or for student satisfaction.

A Way Forward

Based on some of the literature and other resources I’ve found, here are three quick tips for course designers and professors to provide opportunities for choice and ambiguity without negatively impacting students’ experience or satisfaction.

Build Relationships First. Iloh (2019) writes about distance education, adult learners and explores Moore’s idea of “transactional distance,” which is the psychological phenomenon of the space of potential misunderstanding between the instructor and learner (p. 220-221).

From my own experience, sometimes students either don’t want to look incompetent in front of professors or otherwise don’t trust the professor to respond favorably to questions. I think this can make ambiguity difficult to deal with for students. Iloh quoting Giossos et al.:

“According to Moore, transaction is developed by three factors: (1) the dialog developed between instructor and learner, (2) the structure that refers to the degree of structural flexibility of the program, and (3) the autonomy to which the learner exerts control over their learning procedures (Giossos, Koutsouba, Lionarakis, & Skavantzos, 2009, p.2),” (p. 221).

The more a professor can close the transactional distance by building trust, the better. Students will feel more comfortable and will be less likely to misinterpret the professor’s intent or words.

Get Existential. In my own education, I always enjoyed the battle between the determinists and the existentialists. How much choice do we really have in what we do? The existentialist would say that even if our choices are limited, we still have a choice. Maybe that’s the key to course design. The limiting, as Schwartz explains, can actually help us feel better about our choices.

Ackerman et al. (2014) observed that in experiments with higher ed learners, students preferred limited choices within their work (p. 227) and that students’ interest in the subject was also an important factor. The less the student was interested, the fewer choices they wanted (p. 227-229). As much as we love our jobs, it’s probably safe to assume that not every student is as excited as we our about our subject.

Let’s make it easy by providing some choices and ambiguity, but not a lot. What’s the right amount? Perhaps my colleague Yanira is right – we could always just ask!

Play the Clock. As Tait (2020) recognizes, sometimes sleeping on a problem can help us make better decisions. What’s more, from my own experience I know that stepping away from a problem and returning with fresh eyes and a fresh brain can also help. Providing students with time to think and make decisions on assignments could help them be more comfortable with ambiguity and choice. In other words, assignments could be scaffolded or completed over time and in stages rather than all at once.


Students do want at least some level of freedom, and as the ISTE Standards indicate that freedom is important for navigating ambiguity and open-ended work. Professors can help students gain those skills and utilize freedom by building relationships, providing the appropriate levels and sequencing of choices, and by giving students time they need.


Ackerman, D. S., Gross, B. L., & Sawhney Celly, K. (2014). Having Many Choice Options Seems Like a Great Idea, but…: Student Perceptions about the Level of Choice for a Project Topic in a Marketing Course. Journal of Marketing Education36(3), 221–232.

Beymer, Patrick & Thomson, Margareta. (2015). The effects of choice in the classroom: Is there too little or too much choice?. Support for Learning. 30. 10.1111/1467-9604.12086.

Crowell, Steven, “Existentialism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2020/entries/existentialism/

Iloh, C. (2019). Does Distance Education Go the Distance for Adult Learners? Evidence from a Qualitative Study at an American Community College. Journal of Adult and Continuing Education, 25(2), 217–233.

Schwartz, B. (2005, July). The paradox of choice [Video]. TED Conferences. Barry Schwartz: The paradox of choice | TED Talk

Tair, Veronika (2020, September 23). Navigating decision fatigue from covid-19. Psychology Today. Navigating Decision Fatigue From COVID-19 | Psychology Today

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