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Projects: Setting students up for success
I have always been an advocate of integrating projects into class. I think they provide many opportunities for learning not only language skills, but also other essential life skills (or 21st century skills as they are perhaps more commonly known now) such as communication, collaboration, problem solving, creativity… Over the years, however, the way I’ve integrated projects into my classes has (thankfully!) evolved. I have to admit, slightly ashamedly, that way back in the very beginning, I went for a minimalist approach (through lack of experience.) It would go something like this... “The project for this term is “Our super school”, into your groups and off you go…”
My poor students, no wonder chaos often ensued and the quality of work produced was questionable to say the least. I have, consequently, learned from my mistakes and how I integrate projects into class now is much more organised, scaffolded and produces better results. Although I am sure I still have much to learn from the real experts in project based learning, I’m going to share some of the lessons I’ve learned which have led to a much better teaching and learning experience using projects in class.
1. Provide choice
Allow students to take more ownership of the project by involving them. If students feel the project is theirs, they will be more engaged and motivated. How can we provide choice? There are three ways I might involve my students in the initial stages of setting up a project. I allow them to choose either:
The topic of the project: Individually they provide ideas for a project and then we have a class vote. There are some great polling tools available now that you can use to do a class vote either inside or outside of class.
The title within a topic: For example, if we are working on “food”, the topic for all groups is food, however, each group can choose the focus for their project within that topic; Food from around the world, The top five dishes in my country, The history of the common potato, Top tips for a healthy diet, British v Spanish food… (These are real examples that my students have come up with)
The format: For example, the topic is Time travel and the project is to teach the rest of the class about a time in history or in the future. Students decide how they are going to present the information, what tools they are going to use…Will it be a presentation (PowerPoint, Google Slides, Prezi…) a play, a comic, a video…?
2. Provide clear guidelines
Most of us will use projects as a form of evaluation or assessment. Students need to know exactly how they will be evaluated or assessed. They need to know the what, the how and the when.. They need to know what content they need to include. Is there specific information or language that you want them to include? They need to know how to go about doing the project. What are the different stages? What do they need to do first? Maybe they need to distribute the different parts of the project between the members of the groups, maybe they need to do some research first…What comes next?
I prepare a presentation with all the information they need about the project to explain it, then upload this presentation to our blog and print off a physical copy which I call the “Information pack” and is given to the group in every session that we work on the project. This pack contains a checklist of the different stages. When they complete one stage they tick it off and move on to the next stage. The pack also contains the rubric for assessment. They know exactly what their objectives are. Finally the pack contains important dates. Although flexible to some extent (some groups will move on to the next stage before other groups) all groups are aware of the deadlines and can plan and organise their work accordingly.
3. Provide support
Giving students information before they begin a project can save time, help understanding and produce better results. Scaffolding, in the form of a pre-project activity can help students to acquire or activate prior knowledge about the topic and language that they will need to complete it. For example, a recent project we did was “Choose a stereotype. Create two short videos, one portraying the stereotype and one challenging the stereotype” Before we started the project we did an activity about identifying stereotypes and about using camera shots/angles to emphasize situations such as vulnerability, power etc...
Providing students with information and training (video tutorials save time!) about different tools they can use helps students create some truly original and creative pieces of work. We are spoilt for choice these days with the array of creative tools available to us but students often need guidance on the best tools to use and how to use them. If we want our students to use specific language then we may need to pre-teach that language. If I want my students to create an advert to convince their classmates to buy their product, then logically, they need to know the kinds of vocabulary and expressions they can use to convince someone to do something.
4. Define roles
Since discovering cooperative learning, I have realised the importance of having roles in a group clearly defined. If everyone knows what is expected of them, there are fewer disagreements, more accountability and hence more productivity. Students could even agree upon their roles within their group and thus take more ownership of their role. All students are actively participating in their role (in theory!)
5. Evaluation and feedback
Evaluation and feedback throughout the project is extremely important. It provides guidance and an opportunity for students to improve upon their work (or behaviour!) After every session working on a project my secondary school students complete a self/peer evaluation. Again, they have a rubric to refer to. This rubric includes things such as listening skills, collaboration/participation, attitude, task completion... All members of the group reflect on their own contribution and their teammates’ contribution to the project in that session. At the end of the project the final product is evaluated by peers and we look at what we learned, what was done well and what can be improved for next time. If the project is for assessment purposes I give a mark along with feedback. By incorporating regular evaluation and feedback students are aware that the process is as equally important as the final product.
Some of the projects which have been most successful are: -
Stereotypes: Make two short videos, one to show the stereotype and the other to challenge it (Inspired by a course on www.futurelearn.com Short Film in Language Teaching)
- Make an advert to sell an original product. Convince your audience that they need your product
- Create a website.
- Create a micronation
- Make a video tutorial to teach your classmates how to make or do something
- Our Super School
- Create a podcast related to the topic of “food”
- Time travel: Teach your classmates about a time in history or a future time
- Design and promote a festival
- Create a “Chindogu” (an invention neither useful nor useless - look it up if you’ve never heard of them!)
In short, I love projects and my students do too. They are a great way to: - develop language and other important life skills - provide students with lots of opportunities to find their voice, demonstrate knowledge and get creative - engage and motivate However, I think for project work to be most effective, we must remember that our students need support, guidance and information, more than an “Off you go” that is...