Project-Based Learning

Well-designed projects put the students in charge of finding new information, processing this data in accordance with what they already know, and then sharing their newly acquired insights. These are, obviously, skills that will serve students well as they journey into the world. Moreover, this process also invites students to actively engage with course content in order to construct meaning from their research efforts. Years later, most students will remember the ways they applied course content far more than they’ll remember content covered on tests or written about in papers.

From a faculty perspective, transmitting course content in the form of a lecture or a reading is sometimes easier than helping students wrestle with information they’ve found on their own. Indeed, projects can be more work for both students and faculty. Yet, this sort of in-the-trenches learning provides an opportunity to really see the ways in which students are deeply engaging with course content, solving problems, and applying course concepts. A broken clock is right twice a day: students can guess or deduce the right answers to test questions. Student projects, on the other hand, provide a variety of opportunities that allow the instructor to assess student learning with greater confidence.

Here’s a short video about project-based learning. (The content is a great introduction to project-based learning; the faceless people are a little creepy, but, hey, so it goes, right?)

Perhaps you’re now thinking about incorporating project-based learning in your next course? Or maybe you already use projects, but you’re looking to tweak them a little? Time for some resources! While the exact tools you suggest (or require) students use will be a function of your course content and project parameters, the links below might help you think through building in opportunities for students to act as meaning-makers and knowledge mediators via course projects.

Ten Reasons to try 20% Time in the Classroom. The premise here is that you give over 20% of class time for students to focus on self-directed projects. If you’re on the fence about incorporating a major project into your course, these reasons might be worth considering.

The Eight Elements Project-based Learning Must Have. I’m no fan of firm of numbers (nor of the word “must”), but this article does have a handy checklist / simple rubric that is a great starting point for guidelines and rubrics you might give your students.

11 Essential Tools for Better Project-based Learning. Some of these tools we’ve discussed before, some are new to the blog; some have a cost, and some have lite or educational options that make them free or more affordable. Tools range from mind-mapping and visual thinking tools (Mindmeister and Glogster) that might be helpful in the early stages of the project to digital story-telling and presentation options (Animoto and Audioboo) and  that can help convey final results.

Project Ideas. This extensive list of potential project ideas comes from the Kaneb Center at Notre Dame. Note that this a list of ways students can convey their findings, rather than individual topics themselves.

Developing Alternate Research Assignments with Students and Faculty. This link is actually a short case summary of alternate research assignments in two music courses. In particular, I like the perspective offered here by the inclusion of the subject librarian.

Do you have a successful project that you assign? What makes it work so well? Alternately, if projects haven’t been your thing or haven’t quite clicked for your courses, tell us about that, too.

Knowledge Acquisition

In thinking about the ways in which we can ask our students to do more with course content, I recently ran across the graphic below. The image illustrates the different ways in which knowledge can be acquired and subsequently processed (PKM in this context stands for personal knowledge management).

Flowchart graphic showing three main routes of knowledge acquisition: seek, share, sense.

Image credit:
Based on content from the book You Can Do Anything by James Mangan.

My favorite method above is “walk around it.” While this may work in an experimental setting or with physical artifacts, this is a trickier approach for abstract concepts. I like to think “walk around it” in this context might mean something like “How can I think about this theory or problem differently?” or “Coming at this issue from another perspective, I find that. . .”

Seeing the options for knowledge acquisition laid out like this illustrates the wide variety of learning experiences. Student interaction with course content is richer than scribbling notes during lecture and then writing a paper or taking an exam. Of course, well-crafted writing prompts and exam questions may ask students to do some of the things in the graphic above. However, if the first time all students are being asked to actively draw upon their course knowledge is the paper or the exam, well, that may have predictable results for some of them.

The trick is to incorporate active learning experiences that reach all students long before the major paper, exams, or other grading milestones. In the abstract, we all know this: student engagement and success in the course are both likely to be higher if all students are asked to evaluate and apply course concepts along the way. In the trenches of the day-to-day class sessions, though, it’s easy to lose sight of this – especially in the context of the amount of material that has to be covered throughout the term.

In the coming weeks and months, we’ll be exploring active learning opportunities and showcasing some ways to mix up your content presentation, boost student engagement, and help you and your students get the most from peer- and small-group learning.

Summertime and the livin’ is . . .

Summertime and the livin’ is . . . research-intensive? Teaching-intensive? If your summer looks like one of those options, this is a little round-up of tools and tips that might make your life easier.

If you’re traveling internationally for research or as part of a teaching program, ProfHacker has some tips for you about technology while living abroad.

When summer teaching or research involves long travel times, you might appreciate this list of 10 sites to download free audio books. If ebooks are your thing, here’s some open-source software to help you get the ebook you want on the device you have. Alternately, you can check out One Hundred Free Books, a constantly changing list of, yes, one hundred free Kindle books. And here’s a comprehensive list of free courses, audio books, ebooks, and textbooks.

For those working in archives where photography is allowed, the CamScanner app (with free upgrade for educational users) easily converts photos taken with your smartphone into PDFs.

And for those teaching, this is a nice list of first day activities that create a climate for learning. With the shortened summer terms, it’s tempting to plunge right in and start grappling with course content. However, since you’ll also be fighting the inevitable summer distractions, it’s useful to get your students thinking about their role in the learning process.

Just for fun, if you want to know how others are spending the summer, here’s a cool infographic Google created based on world-wide search queries from last summer. Libraries are rather under-represented, sadly.

And, because you might be thinking of it now, here’s some summertime music for you:

Evaluating Individual Contributions to Group Assignments

Instructional designer Debbie Morrison has an interesting piece discussing different strategies for how your students might evaluate one another upon the conclusion of a group project. While the article focuses on peer evaluation strategies for online learning, everything in the discussion is equally applicable to face-to-face teaching.

The author concludes that the existence of a peer evaluation is rarely a motivating factor for quality participation. However, peer evaluations do a serve a purpose in providing an opportunity for group members to express their dissatisfaction with other students in the group. The piece then addresses how instructors might handle the negative comments that students might make about other group members.

Her preferred strategy for assessing individual contributions to group projects? Self-evaluations:

I believe the learner will benefit far more by completing a self evaluation (that is well crafted to include focused self reflection questions) that forces him or her, to examine how he or she contributed [or did not] to the group process. The tool also encourages the student to consider actions that he or she demonstrated to support the team and to estimate what percentage of the work he or she contributed to the project.  ‘Forcing’ the individual student to assess their own behaviour, as opposed to others is more constructive – it supports the aim of developing collaboration skills, along with the knowledge component.

What do you think? Did you use peer- or self-evaluations for group assignments this semester? Were you happy with the feedback your students provided?

Stress Relief

Final exams are nearly upon us. Are you stressed? Are your students?

Here are some smiles for you: therapy dogs soothing stress during finals week at George Mason University. Here’s hoping that some therapy dogs find their way to our campus!

Read all about therapy dogs, university students, and final exams on the national stage. Bonus: a local tie-in.

If dogs aren’t your thing, there’s always Maru, the Japanese cat. Or, you know, the panda cam.

In addition to the joy cute animals bring, biologists suggest that looking at cute animals can improve concentration. Perfect justification for a quick break!


I’ve rounded up some helpful grading links. These should come in handy just in case you find yourself with a pile of grading to do now. Or next week. Or both.

Enjoy a better grading experience. I like the author’s optimism! The link has basic information about how to use your TAs and how to respond to complaints, points worth thinking about if you haven’t yet developed a strategy for either situation. The author also discusses rubrics; note that rubrics have been the topic of several earlier posts here on our blog.

From Profhacker, how to grade with voice on an iPad. This method relies upon the iAnnotate PDF app ($9.99) and having your students submit their papers and receive your comments as PDFs. The blog post has a detailed how-to video. Additionally, several commenters share alternative methods for adding audio comments to student work. Other Profhacker posts detail providing voice feedback using Jing and audio comments using Audacity.

If you find yourself grading something other than traditional papers or exams, this very thoughtful piece on evaluating multi-modal work may help to crystallize your approach.

In closing, a reminder that we have Teacher-Scholar labs on May 7th and 10th. We can help you wrap up this semester or get ready for next semester.