Teaching Decision Making Skills in High School Students

Developing decision making skills in high school students

Decision making is something we do every minute of the day. Decision making skills and its related problem solving skills are one of the 5 major types of life skills identified by the World Health Organization (1) as essential for development of an individual.

Informed decisions

For most of us, the small decisions that we make everyday, such as the clothes we wear, the shows that we want to watch on TV, the food we choose to eat, can generally be made without much thought. However, when it comes to making major decisions, such as, selecting a career or choosing a university, having a step by step approach to decision making, with the correct information at hand, allows us to make informed decisions.

Knowledge is power

Knowledge means having complete and correct information about a particular item. Having such knowledge is key to the decision making process and the ability to collect and analyse information is a vital part of the decision making skills to be acquired. So how do we go about acquiring knowledge?

There are a number of ways that we can acquire knowledge – they include:

  1. Observation
  2. Experience
  3. Reasoning
  4. Logic
  5. Modelling
  6. Testimony
  7. Feedback
  8. Brainstorm
  9. Authority
  10. Intuition

Decision making process

The steps required for decision making are as follows:

  1. Define the subject matter of the decision to be made (whether it is a problem, challenge or an opportunity)
  2. Identify the number of options that may be taken in respect of the decision
  3. Analyse the benefits, risks, opportunities and threats of each option (using the SWOT method or any other methods of analysis)
  4. Select, based on informed knowledge, an appropriate option or solution
  5. Implement the chosen option or solution
  6. Review and assess impact of decision
  7. Modify the course of action, as necessary

Step 1 – defining the subject matter

Usually, the subject matter is easily defined as it is obvious – e.g. what course should I study at university? Which resume template should I use – chronological or functional?

In many cases, the subject matter involves a series of categories of items or dependencies, each needing a decision to be made. For example, the decision “what course should I study at university” requires the student to make additional decisions such as, what is my chosen career, which university should I go to, what courses are available at that university and so on.

Here, you need to break down the subject matter into its categories of items and apply the decision making process into each category or dependency.

Step 2 – identify options available

In any decision making process, this step of identifying options available involves acquiring knowledge. Any of the techniques outlined above to acquire knowledge can be used. The appropriate technique used generally depends on the decision to be made.

For example, if the decision to be made involves the school council making a decision on a theme for prom night, then the brainstorming technique may be the best way to acquire knowledge and identify options available.

On the other hand, making a career choice is likely to involve using several techniques to acquire knowledge –

  1. Asking for thoughts based on the experiences of someone who is already in that career (testimony)
  2. Reviewing articles on a career site (authority)
  3. Limiting options to a select few based on likes and dislikes (reasoning)

Step 3 – analyze benefits, risks, opportunities and threats

There are several different approaches

Using a decision tree or a decision matrix or mind map

Step 4 – select appropriate option or solution

Once benefits and risks have been analyzed, the next step is to make that decision. In cases where you have a group of individuals involved in the decision making process, such as a committee or council or team, the decision is likely to be made by consensus.

It is important that all members of the group have full knowledge of the benefits and risks relating to the decision. It is not necessary for every individual to undertake the tasks required to be performed in steps 1 to 3 outlined above – here, it is possible to delegate steps 1 to 3 to a specific member of the group. However, it is necessary for each member of the group to have received and reviewed the results of the initial analysis.

Step 5 – implement chosen option or solution

Depending on the subject matter and the risks involved, implementing the option or solution may be made immediately or in stages. If a series of decisions are required (e.g. choosing a course to study at university), then it is likely that the course of action taken is made in stages.

Step 6 – review and assess impact

Ideally, you would have anticipated the impact of any decisions made after having implemented steps 1 to 5. In some situations however, unexpected consequences may occur or if they were anticipated, the consequences may be more severe than expected.

For example, the decision by the school student council to accept specific benefits from a charity may result in unintended tax consequences for the school and this was discovered only through an accounting review of the student council’s accounts.

Step 7 – modify course of action, if necessary

An effective risk management technique is to embed into the decision making process an iterative approach to the implementation step. “Iterative” means applying the process repeatedly and allows more flexibility in the decision making process.

A final decision may therefore only be made over a period of time with modifications made to the interim decision or parts of the decision along the way, if necessary, after acquiring more knowledge (such as collecting feedback).


More articles on life skills


  1. WHO 1999, Partners in Life Skills Education – Conclusions from a United Nations Inter-Agency Meeting, Geneva, <http://www.who.int/mental_health/media/en/30.pdf>


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