Saturday, May 9, 2009

Teaching: Assigning Projects

I previously argued why teachers should write hard exams. In short, threatening a good, hard exam is an effective way to credibly bind students to learning course material. Just like the problem of getting up in the morning, most of us find it difficult committing to studying intensely enough to learn. That's where the teacher comes in, and a hard exam is a nice way to give students the right incentives.... most of the time.

On the other hand, writing good exams is not the only element of good teaching. In fact, for disciplines like art and English composition, exams are irrelevant, even counterproductive. Exams can be a complete waste of time. If you're not convinced, imagine what would happen if you gave an exam every day. Your students surely would not learn much!

What can we do to challenge students between exams? What if we teach a subject like art where exams are a bad idea? As a comment on my last teaching post, Amanda B said that projects are a great way for your students to learn in the interim. I agree. From my perspective, well-posed homework and projects are an excellent complement to difficult exams (if you give exams at all).
In my previous post, I argued that the best exam is clear and challenging. So, what makes a good project or homework? I see three characteristics that are common to good projects:

Good projects challenge students. Students who are doing a project should find themselves neither hopelessly confused, nor insanely bored. If the tasks are well-posed, most students working on a project are somewhere in between the two extremes. If the project is too difficult for your students, they will rationally give up. If it is too easy, your students won't see the point, and they'll take learning your subject for granted. No teacher wants that.

Good projects engage students. Learning should be fun. If not fun, students should at least find the topic useful. This is what I mean by engaging students. Personally, I use fun examples and zany settings, but that's not necessary. Great teachers know the interesting questions in their discipline. Projects are a wonderful time to expose students to those interesting questions and ideas. Who knows? Maybe you will inspire the next great artist, or economist!

Good projects relate to other parts of the class. Projects and homework help students make connections between different ideas in your class. Projects give students a chance to apply those ideas to somewhat realistic settings. If you will, it's an opportunity for your students to get behind the wheel and do some driving. To accomplish this, a good project has to be grounded in the rest of your class. To take the driving analogy, if you never talked about the gas pedal, how can you expect your students to drive?

If you're a teacher, I strongly recommend assigning projects. They're a great tool to encourgage learning. Projects make your subject come alive in your students' minds. And to a teacher, there's no greater reward!

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