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Talking about Projects

January 9, 2012

In our algebra-based physics course, students have had to complete two independent projects that are carried out in groups. Each independent project involves the group of students writing a proposal, the group giving an oral presentation, and each individual student submitting a formal written report. The independent projects have to be related to course content and must involve data collection and the use of analytical skills developed in lab (linearizing data so that equations of best-fit give physically relevant quantities, and managing and reporting uncertainties ). Typical projects have been students investigating terminal velocity, spring constants, the independence of horizontal and vertical motions, coefficients of friction.

In December, the fall-semester instructors met to debrief about how the semester went, and student projects were a large part of the discussion. There was a strong consensus-view among the instructors for reducing the projects from two down to one, mostly for reasons that, in their current implementation, we could not see much realized educational value.  Although they are grading intensive, this did not seem to be a driving concern of anyone. Now, the issue is going to be discussed at our department meeting next week, but the decisions has already been made to keep two projects for this spring semester.

Here are my experiences and thoughts about doing the projects, at least as they are structured now:

  • Despite being given extensive guidelines for grading the projects, there have been no clear learning goals communicated to the instructors regarding the projects. If the grading guidelines are any indication of any tacit learning goals, it is to make sure that students can follow directions by using appropriate formats, figures, headings, citations, etc. This contributes, I believe, in flaky assessment practices and poor communication to students about the purpose and value of these projects.
  • Group projects have been tough to manage on social level. Last semester, I had cases where I suspected minority students were being denied access as full participants in their groups, and then later identified as not carrying their weight (in peer-evaluations).  I had another case, where an older and  returning student (with a job, family, and child on the way), became immensely frustrated at the lack of initiative and commitment from a bunch of eighteen-year olds who declined to show up twice for agreed-upon meetings. In another class, two students got into a screaming match over the project, nearly resulting in a fight during class.
  • In an already over-crammed schedule, we lose 2 full days of class to students giving presentations (8% of our time together). The presentations are mostly boring and somewhat horrendous with a few gems here and there. They are  also peer-graded, which contributes to making them fairly meaningless, as most students will not really give a bad grade out.

But I don’t want to talk about any of that on Wednesday. I worry that those above concerns contribute to a very unproductive conversation in which everyone gets to weigh in on whether or not they like projects, what they do and don’t like about projects, how projects have gone well and not well in the past, etc. “Me, too” conversations are better suited for lunch talk, not for meetings. What I most fear about our meetings is that there is no structure in place for constructing arguments about course reform.

Instead, what I want to talk about on Wednesday is this:

What educational goals or values are these projects intended to support? Why are these goals important to us?

How would we know if the projects are, in fact, helping us to meet these goals? What would be convincing evidence? What would not? What would we do differently if we found that the projects were not? Would we be more likely to tweak the implementation, drop the goals, or seek out other avenues for meeting these goals? Why?

What are other avenues for meeting these goals? Have these been considered, used, or discussed in the past? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

Even if we are meeting our goals, are there any undesirable / unintended consequences that deserve our attention? Are these issues of implementation? Do these merit considering alternatives?

I’d really love to throw this one in, but I fear it would be too much: Are we assessing student work in a way that is consistent with our learning goals?… If not, why not? If so, do we think we could be doing a better job?

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist permalink
    January 9, 2012 2:10 pm

    I like your comment about lunch talk vs meetings and the “me too” approach to some of the conversations. I would hope that your dept would welcome your preferred approach. In my own department, sometimes language like you suggest falls flat because people thinks it’s “edu-babble” or that “physics is more important.” I know that I got my department to enact the most change when I told people I was happy to lead the project. But we only have so much time on our hands, right? Good luck, I really like your preferred topics and I’d love to hear how it goes.
    -Andy

  2. January 9, 2012 9:43 pm

    Yeah, I can certainly see the “edu-babble” problem. As lame as this is, my actual plan is to mostly stay quiet and listen, and to perhaps at the right moment suggest one or two of the above questions, especially if a good opportunity arises.

  3. Becca permalink
    January 10, 2012 9:49 am

    I go to a school whose curriculum is very project-based. To me, one of the main educational goals of projects seems to be for students to learn to work with ambiguity and open-endedness (the assumption being that ambiguous and open-ended problems are the things we will be tackling in our future careers, and thus what our education should be preparing us for). Another important goal is for students to develop an ability to be self-directed learners. Basically, the goal is for students to be able to identify what it is they need to learn for the project, and then be able to go learn that. The justification for that learning goal is essentially that no matter what you learn in school, there’s no way that when you graduate you’ll know everything you need to know for your whole career, so what you really need to know is what to do when confronted with a problem you are unprepared for (life-long learning would be the buzz-word to throw around here). From a motivational standpoint, projects also seem to be valuable because they allow students freedom to focus deeply on a topic that is more intrinsically interesting to them. When set up appropriately, projects can allow different students to master the same desired content within their different chosen contexts.

    I’m interested in your opinion: are any of the above educational goals things you want the projects to support? Do you think they are supported by the current project assignments?

    Also, I second Andy: I like your questions, and I’d love to hear how it goes on Wednesday.

    • January 10, 2012 1:59 pm

      Hi Becca,

      One of things I’d like to see develop are goals that aren’t the goals of the projects, but are rather goals for which the projects may (or may not) serve. To me, this disambiguation is especially important, if we are to have a frank conversation about change. In your example, I see that you have goals that students learn to “work with ambiguity” and “identify and pursue lines of inquiry”, and some of your justification for these goals are focused on the side of “career preparation” aimed at being able to approach complex work-place problems.

      Completely separate from this conversation is a different kind of discussion about the affordances that student projects may have for meeting these goals: You mention the potential for motivation and immersion in content.

      Ultimately, I want to carefully distinguish these three things: learning goals, their justifications, and the affordances of any particular pedagogical approach. For the moment, I’m more interested in helping this to happen than to press for any particular learning goals or pedagogical approaches. Given the current situation, I am personally for abandoning the projects all together.

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