In our algebra-based physics course, students have had to complete two independent projects that are carried out in groups. Each independent project involves the group of students writing a proposal, the group giving an oral presentation, and each individual student submitting a formal written report. The independent projects have to be related to course content and must involve data collection and the use of analytical skills developed in lab (linearizing data so that equations of best-fit give physically relevant quantities, and managing and reporting uncertainties ). Typical projects have been students investigating terminal velocity, spring constants, the independence of horizontal and vertical motions, coefficients of friction.
In December, the fall-semester instructors met to debrief about how the semester went, and student projects were a large part of the discussion. There was a strong consensus-view among the instructors for reducing the projects from two down to one, mostly for reasons that, in their current implementation, we could not see much realized educational value. Although they are grading intensive, this did not seem to be a driving concern of anyone. Now, the issue is going to be discussed at our department meeting next week, but the decisions has already been made to keep two projects for this spring semester.
Here are my experiences and thoughts about doing the projects, at least as they are structured now:
- Despite being given extensive guidelines for grading the projects, there have been no clear learning goals communicated to the instructors regarding the projects. If the grading guidelines are any indication of any tacit learning goals, it is to make sure that students can follow directions by using appropriate formats, figures, headings, citations, etc. This contributes, I believe, in flaky assessment practices and poor communication to students about the purpose and value of these projects.
- Group projects have been tough to manage on social level. Last semester, I had cases where I suspected minority students were being denied access as full participants in their groups, and then later identified as not carrying their weight (in peer-evaluations). I had another case, where an older and returning student (with a job, family, and child on the way), became immensely frustrated at the lack of initiative and commitment from a bunch of eighteen-year olds who declined to show up twice for agreed-upon meetings. In another class, two students got into a screaming match over the project, nearly resulting in a fight during class.
- In an already over-crammed schedule, we lose 2 full days of class to students giving presentations (8% of our time together). The presentations are mostly boring and somewhat horrendous with a few gems here and there. They are also peer-graded, which contributes to making them fairly meaningless, as most students will not really give a bad grade out.
But I don’t want to talk about any of that on Wednesday. I worry that those above concerns contribute to a very unproductive conversation in which everyone gets to weigh in on whether or not they like projects, what they do and don’t like about projects, how projects have gone well and not well in the past, etc. “Me, too” conversations are better suited for lunch talk, not for meetings. What I most fear about our meetings is that there is no structure in place for constructing arguments about course reform.
Instead, what I want to talk about on Wednesday is this:
What educational goals or values are these projects intended to support? Why are these goals important to us?
How would we know if the projects are, in fact, helping us to meet these goals? What would be convincing evidence? What would not? What would we do differently if we found that the projects were not? Would we be more likely to tweak the implementation, drop the goals, or seek out other avenues for meeting these goals? Why?
What are other avenues for meeting these goals? Have these been considered, used, or discussed in the past? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
Even if we are meeting our goals, are there any undesirable / unintended consequences that deserve our attention? Are these issues of implementation? Do these merit considering alternatives?
I’d really love to throw this one in, but I fear it would be too much: Are we assessing student work in a way that is consistent with our learning goals?… If not, why not? If so, do we think we could be doing a better job?