More on Project-Based Learning

I’m still gathering information on project-based learning. My colleagues have approved a redesign of an interdisciplinary major, and the “culminating experience” course for seniors is changing from the traditional thesis to a research-based project. The course requires that each student’s project be problem solving-oriented, deliver a defined outcome with measurable effects, and be presented to the public.

Edutopia, a part of the George Lucas Education Foundation, has produced a very helpful guide on how to assess project-based learning. The guide is one example of how Edutopia is generating a tremendous amount of data-driven recommendations on active learning based on field testing in the K-12 environment. A simple example is the teaching of financial literacy to socioeconomically-disadvantaged students in Chicago.

Here, briefly, are the guide’s ten tips:

  1. Authentic, reality-based final products provide students with better ways to demonstrate what they have learned.
  2. Incorporate and assess “soft” skills, such as creative problem-solving and global awareness, to better prepare students for the future challenges they will face.
  3. When incorporating project-based learning into curricula, learn what the “big thinkers” in the field have to say about assessment.
  4. Because students will often be working on different tasks at different times, use formative assessment to ensure that students are mastering content and that students’ project development stays on track.
  5. Provide students with just-in-time feedback, in part to give them frequent opportunities to reflect on their reflecting.
  6. Teach strategies for effective collaboration, because students usually don’t know how to work well as part of a team.
  7. Embed assessment methods into the students’ use of digital tools; for example, an evaluated online discussion can result in greater participation among students who are reluctant to speak in the classroom.
  8. Provide students with an external audience; they will be more motivated to produce good work and will need to respond to challenging questions and criticism.
  9. Expand your repertoire of assessment methods and strategies through the free “do it yourself” professional development that is available on the Internet.
  10. Team up with colleagues — they are facing the same assessment-related demands you are.

Pushing for Answers

This is one of those very basic teaching maneuvers that its easy to neglect as the semester wears on.  It is easy, when either asking a question during lecture or in the course of a discussion, to let students simply talk.  The typical response is to either let other students respond, or for us to put their remark into context. Both have merits–the former creates a classroom that values freedom for new ideas, while the latter encourages students to speak, knowing that even a not-quite-right answer will be magically transposed into the correct answer.

But there are dangers as well.  In the unmoderated discussion, students may talk but not listen to each other, the dominant students may control the debate, or students may rely on personal experience, isolated cases, or flat out misinformation as evidence for their opinions.  In the case of the student who calls out an answer that we must mold, it encourages lazy thinking, with students calling out whatever pops into their head, not necessarily due to serious thought or analysis.

How to handle this?  There are many methods, but the one I’m rather fond of is to challenge the students on everything they say in a discussion.  When students give answers, I make them elaborate and explain exactly how their answer connects to the material.  I don’t let them off the hook either–I push, cajole, and help them to talk through the connections, rather than making the link for them.  I can’t emphasize enough  how frustrating this often is for students, and how frequently they want to give up in the middle of the process.  Other students will try to help.  But unless the student is really stumped, I don’t stop, and once they’ve actually manged to do it, they really feel a sense of accomplishment.  I’m also upfront with my students about why I do this–my job is to help develop their critical thinking skills, and my providing all the answers and saying ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ doesn’t  help them in that respect.

This method is not always appropriate (brainstorming activities, for example, would be completely cut off if you try this) and they do require a sense of trust in the classroom between students and teachers.  My students know that I am not mocking them or deliberately singling them out for embarrassment, but to help them.  They all experience it, so there is no sense that I am ‘picking’ on them.  And sometimes I soften the experience, by having them discuss a question in small groups so that group mates can work together to explain their answers.

This is one of the most basic ways of taking a passive class and truly making it active, and its applicable to any kind of class where you ever ask questions of students.  Sometimes the simple changes can really have a big impact on student learning.

Best Teaching Practices

Happy Easter holiday to all. The Easter Bunny in the form of our provost recently informed faculty about an an online guide to best teaching practices, published by the Office of Academic Affairs at the City University of New York. The document is also available as a PDF download at the same webpage.

The guide consists of recommendations broken down into three categories: presentation of materials, student assignment and testing, and strategies that students can use to enhance learning. Clicking on any single recommendation brings up a corresponding description of practices and relevant references. It’s all very user-friendly, concise, and practical.

Rocket Pitch

I’ve decided to use an exercise that I witnessed at the NEGMA conference on innovation — the rocket pitch. At the conference, competitors for venture capital had three minutes each to sell their ideas to the audience, who voted for their favorites using play Monopoly money.

I’m going to try this in my comparative politics course. Students have already given three group presentations in class. They’ve gone fairly well but sometimes their content has been fairly similar and I can sense students losing interest. For the remaining three presentations required of each group, there will be an element of competition. On days that presentations are scheduled, each student will be given a $10, a $20, and a $50 bill. Each group will have four minutes to present, with three minutes to respond to questions. After all groups have presented, I will call members of each group to the front of the room to individually vote on their favorites using the money (I’m thinking of simply laying down sheets of paper on a table, labeled “Group 1,” “Group 2,” etc., so students can see money piling up.)

I’ve informed students that they can distribute the money however they want, except that voting for their own group is prohibited. Members of the group that receives the largest sum of money will have two points added to their final average.

For those who are interested, this webpage has links to free print-your-own money.

Magic Genie: Quick Exercise on Politics, Distribution, Decision Rules, and Deaths

I did a quick exercise with my intro IR class yesterday that reinforced a lesson on the meaning of politics and its distributive implications, showed them how decision rules matter, and served as a jumping off point for a discussion about Mueller’s arguments about the overblown nature of the terrorist threat. The exercise is very simple, and only takes about five-ten minutes.

I split students into groups of four and gave them one of the following two prompts:

Prompt One

The magic genie of Governlandia is willing to grant you one wish!  Good for you.  Unfortunately, this wish is somewhat restricted—there’s no wishing for more wishes, for one.  In fact, the only thing she’s willing to let you wish for is to permanently cure a single ailment for the world.  Here are the ailments you are allowed to cure:

Terrorism (ends all terrorist attacks permanently)

Cancer (people can still get cancer, but there is a complete and effective cure)

Bumper Cars (deaths by auto accident become a thing of the past—impacts cause no damage)

Global Warming (the temperature will be regulated to prevent largescale climate change)

Nuclear Weapons (all weapons will be permanently disabled, including new ones built)

Bring one extinct animal back to life (T-Rex, dodo’s, wooly mammouths, whatever)

 Prompt 2

The magic genie of Governlandia has granted you one wish—a gift of 100 BILLION dollars.  Good for you.  Unfortunatley, this gift is somewhat restricted—you can only spend it on a handful of things, none of them for your own selfish gain.  Scientists estimate that investing the entire $100 billion in any one area will completely solve that problem; anything less, and the problem will continue.  However, you may distribute the money however you see fit.

Eradicate Terrorism

Universal, unlimited health care

Make Roads Completely Safe

Stop Global Warming

Destroy all Nuclear Weapons

Preserve all Existing Species from Extinction

Groups did not know that there were two different prompts.  When they had made their decision, they posted them on the board, and we discussed why they came to the conclusion they did.

I used this to note a few things.  First, no one gave any attention to the animal rights issues, which led to a discussion about the value of human v. animal life and how some issues can be seen as ‘luxury’ issues. Second, the method of decision making mattered: groups that were allowed to divy up money did so, but had a less intense discussion than those that had to choose only one policy area.  All the groups prioritized health care issues, and we discussed the criteria they use to evaluate the use of funds.  This led us to revisit the definition of politics as ‘who gets what, when, and how’ and segued into a discussion of Mueller’s work on whether or not terrorism is a threat and how people react to it.

Basically this was a neat little 5 minute activity that took no time at all to whip up and explain, but generated numerous discussion points for the remainder of the class.  If you try it out, let me know how it goes!

Getting out of the classroom (and into another)

Today I’m involved with various activities for schools and colleges: our School of Politics is organising a day of events on “Have we learnt the lessons of Afghanistan?” and  a bit later, I’m taking part in a webinar with the IES in Brussels on “Teaching the EU.”  In both cases, the aim is very much to get out of our HE classrooms and think about how we can make both familiar and new topics engaging and accessible for those completing their secondary education.

In the webinar, one of the techniques I’m going to discuss is timelines.  This is a very kinesthetic approach, allowing both large and small group work, as well as creating a very strong visual representation of what can be a confusing subject.

As you can see from the illustration, the group is charged with identifying key events and features, before then bringing them all together, so that they can see (literally) the bigger picture.

The idea is pretty self-explanatory, but it is worth dwelling here on why it’s a useful technique for pre-university students.  Firstly, it can cope with very different levels of knowledge and preparation, as well as group size (the small groups can cover just some of the elements listed).  Secondly, it integrates different elements and the work of different people very smoothly, so reinforcing the group dynamic.  Thirdly, because it requires movement and an unusual representation of the knowledge there is a clear focus to the session, to help keep their attention.

This is a technique I’ve tried with students up to Masters level, precisely for these reasons.  There is a lot to be said for using techniques from wherever we find them, rather than simply thinking that we know best.  School students are not intrinsically different from university students, so we gain nothing by treating them as such.

Live from the 1st Annual NEGMA Conference @ MIT Media Lab

I’m sitting in a large 6th floor room of the MIT Media Lab at the 1st Annual NEGMA Conference, “Innovative Solutions for a Brighter Egypt.” The conference is an application of active learning principles.

The conference is in part designed to support entrepreneurship, innovation, and social development in Egypt. Ten finalists, selected through an outside expert review process, are competing to have their projects funded by NEGMA’s supporters. Project proposals range from equipping small digital fabrication labs to vocational training for the disabled.

So far I’ve gotten three main lessons from the conference. First, when large sums of money are at stake, presentation skills are crucial. Earlier today competitors were required to pitch their proposals to conference attendees, who then voted on their favorites. People who botched their presentations were left at a distinct disadvantage.

Second, collaboration with peers has value. After the presentations, projects were workshopped among conference participants in small groups — in a process that’s very similar to what happens at the APSA’s Teaching and Learning Conference. The finalists’ project proposals were strengthened for tomorrow’s presentations before judges.

The third lesson is that the unbundling of higher education will continue apace, whether we like or not. The traditional four-year, full-time, residential model of undergraduate education is dead. The technology of the internet is indeed making it possible for anyone to learn anything at anytime from anyone. As stated this morning by Wael Fakharany, Google’s regional director for Egypt and North Africa, every minute sixty hours of video are uploaded onto YouTube. Every day, 30 million devices connect to the internet in Egypt alone. Globally, Google handles 4 billion searches daily. This digital landscape is how people around the world will be accessing affordable and effective education — even in areas like vocational training.

Teachers as Norm-setters

This week I have a couple of classroom observations in my diary, as part of Surrey’s developmental work in L&T: I sit in on colleagues in different parts of the university and then feedback on practice.  As part of the pre-observation discussion with both observees, I noticed that the question of norms came up, which got me to thinking about what our role as educators should be in this regard, not least given the wide context.

In the first case, the observee told me she would be starting at ten past the hour, “because the students don’t arrive until then.”  Admittedly, it’s a 0900 slot – the first of the day – but the thought did occur that one of the reasons students don’t turn up on time is because they know the lecturer will not start until a bit later.  Speaking as someone with a 0900 lecture, on a Monday, with freshmen, I can only note that because I have made a point of starting exactly on time, I have very few late arrivals.

In the second case, the observee is planning to run a simulation exercise in the class.  We discussed what preparation the students had been asked to do, and when I asked what would happen if the students (Masters level) hadn’t done that preparation, the answer was that “I expect Masters students to have done it.”  This is the opposite situation to the first, in that the lecturer knows what they want, although as we talked further it wasn’t clear what would happen if it transpired that the students hadn’t done what was expected.

This is all potentially very tricky.  My own inclination of late has been to set out my expectations very clearly at the start and then apply sanctions when those expectations are not met.  This means asking students who’ve not prepared presentation notes for my stick exercises to leave the class and do the work during that time, and making clear that a ‘5 minute break’ is actually 5 minutes (instead of its usual academic version, i.e. the time it takes to leisurely consume a coffee).

Much effort these days is put into ‘improving the student experience’, and much of that agenda is somewhat with which I can wholeheartedly agree: Learning & teaching has too long been marginal to universities’ activities.  However, in some cases there is a confusion between giving students what they want and giving them what they need.  This doesn’t justify a culture of “do as I say” in the medieval sense of university as an apprenticeship, but rather that educators need to set out the logic and reasoning behind their pedagogy, so that students can at least understand the interests and values underpinning it, even if they don’t buy into it.

If we want to move away from students wanting to be spoon-fed (and spoon-feeding students), then we need to take control of the learning environment by setting out the basic framework, within which we give students the opportunity to learn for themselves.  Maybe that way, students will come to want what we give them.

Project-Based Learning

While stumbling around the interweb yesterday, I happened upon an excellent teacher’s guide to project-based learning.  This guide developed out of a partnership between High Tech High (a network of non-selective public charter schools in San Diego), the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, and the UK’s Innovation Unit.

The guide explains in step-by-step fashion how students can execute a project tailored to most any learning outcome established by the instructor. Because the project has relevance to the students, they become invested in both the process and the outcome, and they take more “ownership” of their learning than they otherwise would.

Projects are scaffolded around multiple drafts, critiques, and a public exhibition. Most importantly, the instructor begins the design process by identifying what he or she expects students to learn from doing the project before determining whether or not each student has actually learned. To determine whether students are meeting intended learning goals, assessment occurs at several points throughout the project, rather than at only at the end after the project has been completed. The guide recommends that students’ work be  assessed in different ways:

  • by the student, in exercises of self-reflection,
  • by peers, to foster effective collaboration and to make it easier for the instructor to assess individuals within a group,
  • by the instructor, using the same methods that an instructor uses in in any other context,
  • by an outside expert or audience, as part of the project’s public exhibition.

Crowd-Sourced Studying

Similar to Simon’s experience with the MCQ exam, students typically formed groups and divided the questions among members when doing my take-out quizzes and the connections exercise last semester, but they failed to verify that each other’s answers were correct. This semester, students in my comparative politics course are forming study groups on their own time but blindly accepting their peers’ output, because I can see the same incorrect answers propagating across the exams of multiple students.

To me this is extremely inefficient, especially considering the extrinsic grade-based motivation of most of my students, and I wonder why it happens.  Are students using a rational choice model in which the cost of verifying that an answer is correct is higher than the chance that the answer they’ve been given is wrong? Would reducing the exam to a single question, where students would either score 100 or 0, alter their behavior?

I’m reminded of what I just read in Revolution 2.0, by Wael Ghonim. A Facebook page that he created was instrumental in launching the Egyptian revolution. As part of his strategy to build a sense of community among readers and get them to participate in events, he frequently conducted online polls. Perhaps getting students to survey themselves — across the entire class rather than just within a study circle — would enable them to detect erroneous answers.

I’m also reminded that the organizational behavior of many universities is often not a good model for the kind of collaboration we want to promote among students. It can be very difficult to get faculty, staff, and administrators to communicate across institutional units and exchange information.