Are we blinded by choice?

Courtesy of Young SIETAR‘s Facebook-feed I just stumbled upon this fascinating talk by Sheena Iyengar about choice and the way that our perception of it differs culturally: http://www.ted.com/talks/sheena_iyengar_on_the_art_of_choosing.html?source=facebook#.T8rzHQIP3qE.facebook.

It got me thinking about international students in Finnish universities. While I don’t know how we compare to people from the United States in general, I do feel that we Finns generally value choice tremendously. Especially with the history of living next to a model of a society with limited or no choice (the Soviet Union -era countries), choice has presented itself as something to be proud of. For example, at our Department the freedom of students to choose their M.A. thesis topic is almost sacred, and it has become almost a shared fantasy (in the sense of Ernst Bormann‘s Symbolic Convergence theory) to separate ourselves from those departments and subjects where students are given topics by the staff. However, on many an occasion I have encountered students who struggle enormously with this choice, and who would much rather have a limited set of alternatives or a ready-made topic instead of choosing freely.

Now, I don’t want to make cultural generalizations, since I have also met Finns who have trouble with the total freedom of choice we offer them, but I have the feeling that with some international M.A. students the issue is even stronger. Perhaps they are used to an educational culture where students have limited choice, or perhaps their other cultural upbringing has not prepped them for what we expect here, but I have seen my share of troubled students who struggle with the choices related to writing a Master’s thesis all the way throughout the process.

Could it be that we need to become more sensitive to this (baffling) possibility that our students might not want to have the choice? Might there be other ways to operate, or if we agree that choice is *that* important, how could we train our students better in the art of making them?

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