Anyone that has used the Choices Program curriculum units would agree that the Prioritizing Values Activity is a simple, yet powerful, strategy for encouraging students to think carefully about how their own beliefs, presuppositions, and values impact their opinions on political and social issues. I developed a lesson to use in a Sociology course that builds upon the Prioritizing Values activity that I wanted to share with fellow educators. This lesson is an effective way of introducing concepts of demographics, shared culture, generational shifts in values, and changes in public opinion. In my experience, it also encourages students to discuss values and worldviews with people outside of their own generation. After completing this lesson, I received several emails from students and parents, thanking me for providing an impetus for meaningful discussions in their homes.

I start the class by asking the students to define the concept of “culture.” After some class discussion, I provide several anthropological definitions, many of which include “shared values and beliefs” as part of the definition of “culture.

I then pass out an envelope with the ten Choices value cards:

  • Community
  • Cooperation
  • Democracy
  • Equality
  • Freedom
  • Justice
  • Security
  • Self-reliance
  • Stability
  • Tolerance


And this Handout

Before I ask them to rank these values according to their own definitions and beliefs, just as the Choices lesson has them do, I explain that while culture is, in part, a collection of shared values, individuals do not share and prioritize these values in the same way. People may have different definitions of these values and also may rank some values as more important than others.

I then ask them to put the Values in order of importance to them as individuals, emphasizing that this is about examining their own personal values and that the order of other students’ value cards should not influence their own ordering of values.   After they have had adequate time to order their cards and answer the questions provided, I collect the assignment and enter their rankings on a spreadsheet.

On the spreadsheet, there is a row for each value and a column for each student. This allows you to use spreadsheet functions to do all of the addition for you. For the purposes of data collection, I assign the inverse number of points to their ordering. For example, if the student ranked “Freedom” as #1, I added 10 points to the Freedom row on the spreadsheet. This seems like a lot of work but it actually only takes 10 minutes or so to enter all of the data for 100 students (several classes compiled together). After adding up all of the rows, I sort the final column with the totals for each value and add ranking labels (#1) to each value. This is what it looks like when all student data is compiled, sorted, and ranked:


This can then be easily transformed to a graph to show the relative “importance” of each value for the collective student group.


The percentage data labels are merely an indication of how each value was ranked by the students. The higher the percentage, the greater amount of support for that value as important among the students as a group. It can be misleading because it does not mean, for example, that 15% of students ranked Equality #1 (though a graph that did show the data this way would be very easy to generate from the spreadsheet). I call this a “strength of ranking” score because it reflects how strongly the value is regarded among the population group.

Assignment #1 is then returned to students and we have a class discussion about their individual and collective rankings. At some point in the discussion, I ask the class where we get our values and why we place more importance in some values than others. The most common answers are “our parents” or “our family.” At this point, I hand out assignment #2.

Cautioning students to not reveal their individual or the classes’ rankings to the parent or family member that provides the data for assignment #2, I instruct them to go home, hand the selected person the cards, and show them assignment #2 without providing any additional information. Students report back that the discussion prompted by completing the questions on assignment #2 is an interesting one, especially if they show their own rankings and talk about the similarities and differences after the parents or family member completes their own ordering.   Here is the chart for the parents’ generation collective rankings:


Two differences between the two age cohorts’ value rankings stand out immediately. First, the top 4 for each group is completely different, with Freedom being the only value that makes the top 5 for each group. Secondly, there are less very high and very low percentages in the parents’ age cohort rankings. For example, notice that there are only 2 values higher than 12% in the parents’ age cohort, compared with 4 in the students’ data. The same trend can be seen on the other end of the spectrum too with the parents’ lowest ranked value, Tolerance, receiving a 7% “strength of ranking” score. I interpret this as meaning that there is less agreement on the importance of these values among this group than among the student group.

After a class discussion comparing the composite rankings of the student and parent age cohorts, students receive assignment #3.

In my experience, students are engaged and enthusiastic about continuing the project with their grandparents’ age cohort. Often, parents are interested in knowing how the grandparents will rank the values and join the post-ranking discussion with the students. It is fascinating to hear students talk about the discussion with three members of their families about values and what life experiences shaped their ranking orders. This is the chart from the grandparents’ value rankings:


This lesson is a very simplified version of social science research that can be done with students of all ability levels. While I never took it further myself, this method could also be used to examine gender differences in the prioritization of values as well as aggregating data by other demographical categories.

If you decide to do this project with your students, I have a few suggestions:

  • Do not tell students about assignments #2 and #3 initially. I suspect students would do their initial rankings differently if they knew parents and grandparents would be asked to do the same task.
  • Be aware that students’ individual life situations may require exceptions or alterations to the assignment. For example, students may have parents older than the assigned parents’ cohort age range.
  • Emphasize to students that the aggregate data is the only part that will be shared with the rest of class and that individual responses, from students and their family members, will not be shared.
  • Consider discussing the meanings of the values with the students before they do the ordering task. I found it helped to come up with a “crowd sourced” broad definition of what is meant by each value.

I hope this post will get you thinking about creative ways to engage your students as the new school year begins. It is likely that many teachers, especially those with training in statistics and quantitative research methods could improve the validity and presentation of research results significantly. If you have suggestions for improving or expanding the lesson, I would be very interested to hear from you.

 Jeremie Smith
Outreach Coordinator
Center for Global Studies
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Have you done something creative with our Prioritizing Values Activity ?  Tell us about it in the comments section below.