Making “Project Work” work

In conversation with a student who had just undergone project work (PW) last year, I gained some insights into their particular PW experience.

1 Most of the learning took place with regard to content, not with regard to critical thinking, creative thinking, or research skills. Content is easily picked up from today’s readily accessible sources, but analysing it and using it to generate divergent ideas is a process that has to be continually honed. There has to be sufficient time and leeway for PW students to make mistakes, learn from them, and step through the process of learning from past mistakes, to learn their “thousand ways not to make a light bulb”. Students actually love to apply their creative and critical abilities to subjects they like, subjects of their own choosing. If denied the chance to do so, they apply these abilities to finding loopholes in PW instead.

2 Collaboration is a skill that is picked up as a group; the quality of collaboration is dependent on each group member, and on the group as a whole, and is not something the PW tutor has much control over. Students learn collaboration skills best not through careful mentoring or judicious inspiration from the tutor, but through working with a variety of individuals, and learning their own way of coping with personalities and thinking minds different from their own. Trying to force collaboration in a group, or to brute-force an assessment of collaborative success through gathering “evidence”, inevitably backfires and makes a farce out of the PW process.

3 If group members do not have a personal stake in the PW process, full collaboration is bound to fail. The threat of a bad PW grade is in no way a sufficient substitute for this. An institutionalised grading process always has loopholes. Where there are loopholes, there will always be students who seek to exploit them and let their more grading-concerned group members do the vital work.

4 The current weightage of PW grading allows these freeloaders to get away with a worse individual grade, so long as their group grade makes up for it. This puts hardworking students at a grade disadvantage, and one’s PW grade no longer becomes a true measure of one’s ability to collaborate, or to work in a team. In addition, the low individual weightage of the PW grade does not reflect one’s individual creative- or critical-thinking ability. The student feels that a more subjective evaluation component, carried out by peers and mentors, could be a better reflection of collaborative success, and a higher grade component for writing (and thinking) would give a better indication of critical thinking ability.

5 Ultimately, the PW project is an idea, to be nurtured for a while, then cut loose after the oral presentation and report submission, not to be touched again thereafter. The term “Project Work” could be a misnomer—there is no project that is all idea, and certainly no project is being worked on here. As many entrepreneurs and startup founders have written and would readily tell you, the idea doesn’t matter—it is the execution that matters. They get a dozen ideas a day, but choose only one to work on. There is little difference between a person who generates one idea a day, and one who generates a hundred ideas a day; the one who succeeds is the one who sticks with an idea and makes it work. In our current ways of “teaching” creative thinking and entrepreneurism, we are influencing students into thinking that ideas have special value, and a well-written idea is worth an important grade, regardless of how or whether it is executed. We see this all the time in poorly executed public campaigns and advertising blitzes, “good ideas” not held responsible to the reality of successful execution.

As a teacher who might in future be asked to facilitate PW, I am in a position to do something about this. It would be remiss of me not to do so if the chance arises.

The first thing I would try to improve is student engagement. Students who do not feel engaged and do not feel that their work helps them in any way will not put effort into making a good plan and report. The project task serves as a seed for students to generate ideas from. It is important that I remember not to focus on the idea’s current feasibility or practicality immediately, but help students to branch out from it, to find a connection from that seed to an issue they feel a personal connection to. This connection gives the project personal meaning, and imbues it with a purpose that is not lost after the oral presentation and report submission. PW should be the seed of execution, not merely the seed of an academic grade for pushing students through the doors of tertiary education.

Secondly, non-participation will not be an option. Students who refuse to work with their group members have already failed to demonstrate an important collaborative skill: communication. Furthermore, they deprive their other group members a full opportunity to improve on collaborative processes. For PW to be truly fruitful, this must not be allowed. It is understandable that students can sometimes be jaded by past experiences of unsuccessful group work, or be busy with extracurricular activities. These should not become excuses for avoiding participation in PW.

Thirdly, I will not allow groups to turn in last-minute work, nor will I allow them to spend excessive time on PW. Good ideas seldom turn up spontaneously, unannounced; they usually come from long rumination of material that one has read some time ago. The subconscious (Daniel Kahneman’s “System 2”) takes time to work on ideas, linking them to other pieces of knowledge in one’s mind. Groups that turn in last-minute work deprive themselves of the benefit of this slow, time-intensive, and subconscious reflection. Conversely, groups may sometimes spend excessive time working on a report or proposal. This is more likely to suggest inefficiency in group work rather than sheer dedication and tenacity, a problem not to be neglected—working efficiently is an important skill that does not come intuitively to many. These promises require committed effort on my part, a responsibility I will find easy to shirk. I must try not to.

Lastly, I will make efforts to improve and edit students’ work. Like all of us, students are often unable to find flaws in their own work, requiring an external pair of eyes to help pinpoint them. Good editors do this for their authors, whether new or veteran (perhaps less of a phenomenon in today’s world of publishing), and few authors are unappreciative of the learning that comes from such effort. I will be an editor for my student authors. That means I will not do their work for them, a temptation that may grow overwhelming one week before deadlines. I must not succumb.

For all its flaws in implementation, it is possible to make PW a fruitful experience for both tutor and students. Perhaps the hardest part is having the grace to accept that even in facilitating PW I can make mistakes; one unsuccessful year of PW does not make it a hopeless venture, nor does it make my students hopeless at collaboration or make me a lousy PW tutor. I, too, must give myself chances to discover unsuccessful ways of facilitating PW, so as to uncover ways that do work.