Project Implementation Reflections and Questions

I really enjoyed doing final projects with the kids this year (which may be patently obvious considering that this is my 6th post on the topic). It’s such a fun way to end the year, seeing them get excited about doing something interesting with Calculus and coming up with ideas about math that I never would have even dreamed of.

But projects can also be very frustrating, and hard to implement. Here are the things I struggled with this year. I’d love any feedback or tips.

  1. Since these projects were very open-ended, some students felt a bit lost, and I struggled a lot with how much guidance to give and similarly, how much to let them struggle. I just find it so hard when we have such a short amount of time to see them getting thrown off in a crazy direction, especially if it’s going to lead them to a lot of useless work. I tried so hard to “be less helpful” but I just couldn’t resist sometimes! Part of me feels like I am stealing a bit of a learning opportunity from them and part of me feels like I am just advising them to help guide their crazy teenage thought process. Also, some students just started working on their projects without really knowing why they were doing what they were doing (they just wanted to do “something about optimization”). I wanted to help them do something for their idea without turning it into my idea, but I’m not sure how well I did at that.
    THOUGHTS: I think that I am going to try to have them submit proposals next year where they present some sort of thesis, or a guiding question they are going to answer in their project. This might get them to plan out their project a bit better before starting, give me a chance to give good feedback and also give them an overall question which will really guide their whole project.
  2. One thing that I was continually frustrated throughout the week in class that I gave them to work on the projects was that students did not work very efficiently, leaving much of it for the end. Part of it was that they just had so much time in class, but part of it was that I have no idea how to help them structure their own project to use class time well. I had tons of students show up without materials to work on their projects, and even some who would sit there and do nothing telling me that they were just going to finish at home.
    THOUGHTS: I wanted to do a midpoint deadline of some sort, but because all the projects were so different, it seemed really weird to me to organize something like that. I might try having them make a schedule in the beginning of the project, but I’m not sure how to help them stick to that, or if that is even worth all the work that it would be.
  3. Similar to supporting them in organizing their time, I struggled helping them work well together with each other. I think group work like this is crucial in high school to learn how to structure time with someone else and communicate about a project, but the students were terrible at this. They would do things like not show up to class without telling their partner, even though they had all the materials. I even had to mediate an email war between two girls who were flipping out at each other about who was doing less for the project.
    THOUGHTS: Maybe this isn’t something that I need to do something for, and maybe this is something they just have to learn by doing the project, but perhaps I could find ways to help them structure their roles in the project beforehand, or maybe just do more long-term projects like this over the course of the year.
  4. Last, I really want them to show off their work to each other, but I’m not sure how to make class presentations anything but the boring yawn fest that they tend to be. Students did some really cool things, but were really bad at explaining those things in a way that the class could understand. Also, it’s really hard to listen to two full class days of presentations, even for me, and it’s really hard for students to get anything out of the presentation when they are not really expected to engage in a meaningful way (not one of the presentations was interactive in any way).
    THOUGHTS: I’m looking for some sort of other structure to make it more interesting. Maybe some sort of gallery walk type structure? And I also want some formal way to get those listening involved so that they really pay attention and learn – some sort of commenting system, or interactive component. It’s very hazy in my head, but this is something I am going to try to flesh out over the summer.

Any ideas would be greatly appreciated!

(Also, below is my rubric for grading these projects)

Posted on June 5, 2012, in Calculus, End of the year projects and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I’ve not tried it with high school students, but sometimes for college students spreading out a project (say 1 day a week) with required progress reports can help.

    A poster session with odd-numbers standing by their posters to explain while even-numbers circulate one day and evens presenting while odds circulate the next day might help a little with the “boring presentation” problem. This poster presentation method is very common at scientific conferences. (One conference I often go to has 1000s of posters.)

    You could try grading presentations on just 2 criteria:
    1) was it factually correct?
    2) did it keep the whole class interested the whole time?

    Some training on how to give a presentation (culturally appropriate eye contact, enthusiasm, organization, visual aids, …) can also help. It isn’t that they *want* to give boring presentations—they just don’t know how to do good ones (or think that the boring one is what is expected).

  2. Wow, I wrote an eerily similar blog post about my struggles with end-of-the-year projects for my 7th grade Algebra students. Kind of nice to get that feeling of solidarity from your post, but I wish I had something useful to contribute. I love the suggestion above about having poster sessions rather than formal presentations to the whole class as these made our class a terribly boring place for 2 days. I don’t know if there’s any way around boring presentations using a whole-class model, even with visual aids, enthusiasm, eye contact, the whole 9 yards. It’s the whole passive transmittal of information to a group that has not struggled with that project personally that’s making it boring. In terms of students’ issues with time management and group work skills, I think that’s just a matter of practice. One thing I realized from my end-of-year projects was that if I had done more open projects throughout the year, they would be a lot better at doing them. And I would probably be better at giving guidance without taking over the project or helping too much. They don’t have to be big, multi-day/week projects, but they have to be frequent enough and with enough opportunities for them to get feedback on these aspects of project work that they will improve. Anyway, thanks for the post and for helping me think through my own struggles with these types of projects. Cheers!
    – Anna (@Borschtwithanna)

  3. I second the poster session idea – I’ve done that at the end of a lot of my projects and it’s definitely better than whole class presentations. One suggestion to add, addressing your concern with helping the listening students be more active, is that whenever I’ve done poster sessions the listeners have had feedback sheets that they fill out and which get distributed to the presenters afterwards. In my cases, the feedback sheets have always been the same as the grading rubric that the professors use, but they are also significantly more bare-bones than yours: three categories and a 1 to 5 (or 1 to 7) scale with both extremes labeled. I think something like that provides a good amount of structure for students to think about how to evaluate each others’ work and provides a push of extra incentive to pay attention and really think about what’s being presented. (Added bonus: repeatedly doing this with similar rubrics over multiple projects has led me to better evaulate my own work by the same criteria while I’m still in the midst of the project and thus have time to fix it. No guarentee that it will have that effect on everyone, but it did for me at least.)

    I think project proposals are a good idea. I’ve found that they can sometimes still be frustrating because it is totally possible for students to write one while still really having no idea what they’re going to do, but overall they’re still probably better than nothing. It’ll force all students to have at least planned a little, and will probably be significantly helpful to a decent fraction of the class. Along the same lines, I think a midpoint deadline is probably also a good idea. Honestly, you can probably be as vague as just telling them they have to produce a “deliverable,” and let them figure out what is most appropriate for their particular project – basically any form of preliminary results or a tangible demonstration of work in progress. If you want to be really ambitious about encouraging real project planning you can even tell them to write in their project proposal what their intermediate deliverable is going to be. (But if you do that, definitely make it clear that they’re not firmly committed to what they write – if their project starts going off in an unexpected direction they should be able to adjust to that and change their minds)

    Another thing which I’ve found very helpful in my own projects is to declare at the beginning (in the project proposal) both a “minimum deliverable” and a more ambitious goal. Basically, the “minimum deliverable” is the simplest possible form of what you want to do, something that should be easily within reach. And the more ambitious goal is what you actually want to accomplish. Writing both helps me to figure out how to start with something simple and then build up from there once it works, which is infintely more productive than accidentally jumping in way over my head and then trying to figure out how to back out of that to something simpler. Essentially, writing down a tiered set of goals means that I’ve created my own scaffolding for the project, which makes it way easier to make constant steady progress and always know what the next step should be. I’m not sure how relevant that idea is going to be in your context, but it’s been so important to my projects’ successes that I thought I should at least throw the idea out there and you can do what you want with it.

    Sorry this comment has gotten so long, but one final thought, in regard to students learning how to work together. I think on some level you’re right that they just have to learn by having more experience working on teams, but there are probably also things you can do to speed up that learning. I think that probably the best thing you can do is to encourage more meta-conversations about how well the teamwork is doing. Make it something they think about explicitly, reflect on and talk to each other about, and they’ll learn to do it better sooner. I don’t have any experience with group roles being explicitly assigned, but just having the students talk at the beginning of the project (and periodically throughout it?) about what they want their roles to be and what expectations they have for themselves and each other is probably a good way to start.

    By the way, just so you know where this is all coming from: I’m currently a college student (engineering major, planning to become a teacher) at a school with tons of project-based learning. So, I guess all of this is from the perspective of lots of college projects, which have ranged in length from a few weeks to a full semester. Probably a lot of it will be less useful in your environment than it has been in mine, but hopefully it’s at least some helpful food for thought?

    • This is GREAT. Thank you so much for all of your awesome ideas. I was nervous to try out structures like you mentioned because sometimes I feel like I’m annoying my students with hoops to jump through but I’m glad that you seem to find them valuable and helpful in your own learning. I just have to force myself to start trying.

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