Instructor Versus Learner Control

The Best Choice .... according to the experts

Learner control refers to the ability of students to choose topics, assignments, project format or communication strategies according to their own interests and preferences.

Reigeluth & Stein 1983, p. 362 – "... instruction generally increases in effectiveness, efficiency, and appeal to the extent that it permits informed learner control by motivated learners" ().


Marlino, M.R. – "While some learner control can be motivating, too much can be confusing. The learner may not always be the best judge of the instruction required for effective learning.


  • Learner control strategies tend to increase students' involvement and achievement (Williams, 1996).
  • "Learners given control over their instruction might be more likely to think about what they are doing as a result of having to make choices along the way" (Williams, 1996).
  • "Adults desire to 'set my own learning pace,' 'use my own style of learning,' 'keep the learning strategy flexible,' and 'put my own structure on the learning project'." (Penland, 1979).
  • "No open arguments exist against learner control, yet there are arguments on the degree of learner control, i.e., how much learner control should the students have (Schulmeister, 1997).

Basic Information


Definition of learner control

Williams, 1996 – '"[Learner control is when] learners make their own decisions regarding to some aspects of the 'path', 'flow', or 'events' of instruction."

In many classes, learner control can take the form of learner choice, i.e., alternatives that achieve the same learning objectives but give learners opportunities to select the best way to learn and the best way to show what they have learned. Consider the following situations:

  • Students can choose to write one 50-page paper or three 12-page papers on 3 different topics.
  • Students can choose alternative project formats (e.g. a poster, presentation, or a short paper).
  • Students can choose to hand in a draft of the paper before it's due, it's not graded, but you give the students feedback.
  • Students are given the option of additional practice exercises. They are available but not required.
  • Students can choose to do an interview through video-conferencing or face-to-face.
  • Students can choose to take a class in a traditional lecture format, an online format or a combined ("hybrid") online and traditional format.

Degree of Learner control

The degree of learner control should depend on following variables: (Depover and Quintin, 1992; Hannafin, 1984; Milheim & Martin, 1991; Steinberg, 1989):

  • Previous knowledge
  • Student strategy and ability
  • Learning progress
  • Complexity of material
  • Familiarity with the subject

Instructor guidance vs. Learner control

Some questions to consider:

  • Is it necessary to tell the students every step they should take?
  • Do you provide resources and let the students select from among the resources?
  • Should you let students choose their own research topic, will you assign a topic, or will you provide a list of topics from which they may choose?


Depover, C. E Quintin, J. J. (1992). Learner control versus computer control in professional training context. In M. Giardina (ed.), Interactive Multimedia Learning Environments: human factors and technical considerations on design issues.  Berlin, Springer-Verlag, 234-247.

Hannafin, M. J. (1984). Guidelines for using locus of instructional control in the design of computer-assisted instruction. Journal of Instructional Development 7(3), 6-10.

Schulmeister, Rolf (1997) "Learner control vs. program control." Hypermedia Learning Systems.
Retrieved May 14, 2003 from (Home)

Milheim, W. D. & Martin, B.L. (1991). Theoretical bases for the use of learner control: three different perspectives. Journal of Computer-Based Instruction 18(3), 99-105.

Marlino, M. R. (1995). Research findings and recommendations. Retrieved May 14, 2003 from

Penland, P. (1979). Self-initiated learning. Adult Education 29(3),170-79.

Reigeluth, C. M. & Stein, F.S. (1983). The elaboration theory of instruction. In C.M. Reigeluth, ed. Instructional-design theories and models, 335-82. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Steinberg, E. R. (1989). Cognition and learner control: a literature review, 1977-88. Journal of Computer-Based Instruction 16 (4),117-24.

Williams, M. D. (1996). Learner-control and instructional technologies. In D. Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook of research for educational communications and technology (2nd ed.) Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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