Monday, October 13, 2014

ONE big, long, unit project. Does it work?

This year, I decided to try something new with my grade 12 college math class: one big (14-16 learning goals), long (one month), comprehensive (covering everything we need for the unit) portfolio project. I initially wrote about the class and the project here.

Their mark for the unit will consist of the portfolio (with great emphasis), the unit test and a completion mark for some required exit slips that I used as "double checks" to make sure students were on task and mastering the material. That's all. Every day consisted of me checking in with the students one-on-one and helping where necessary.

We're now at the end of the unit, so I'm faced with the task of deciding whether or not the project was worth it. Did it engage the students? Did the format help them learn? Was I able to assess more through observation and conversation as I had hoped? Are they better students (or, more generally, learners) because of it? Did they hate math just a little bit less?

On se débrouille...

Going in, I knew students would not be impressed with dictating the learning themselves. I've found many students are conditioned to sit and listen (or not listen, as is often the case), and then work through whatever is put in front of them (or not work through it). Many don't like the idea of not having everything handed to them, but instead having to choose what they are going to learn and how they are going to learn it.

(Aside: There's a great verb in French for this - se débrouiller (the ability to cope or manage oneself, particularly in a tricky or unfamiliar situation) - that I wish there was an equivalent word for in English!)

But I get it - it's different, and the student perception is that it's hard. It certainly is harder than not having to decide how you're going to spend your class time. I gave the students a post-portfolio reflection survey at the end of the project to see what they thought. Here's what they said (my thoughts are in red):

How much effort did the students put into this project?
(1 = none, 10 = everything they could)
Almost 50% of respondents answered with 9 or 10, with the lowest answer being 4. The average answer was 7.6. Most students felt they put good effort into their portfolio.

This contradicted what I saw in class. About half the class worked well - picking away at it every day and making good progress. The other half did very little in class, even if I was sitting with them offering to help as they learned. They were reluctant to access online or print resources, and did not seem concerned with getting the project done until about three classes before it was due - at which point there was a bit of a panic to finish.

What did you like best about this project?
The students chose what they liked best from a checklist - they could answer with as many choices as they liked.
Click to enlarge the graphic
Other suggestions were "It directly applies to life," (1 response) and "Nothing" (1 response). Choosing order and pace seems to be most important to the students, followed by choosing how to do the work and not worrying about falling behind.

I found students to be less stressed on the whole - with the exception of those last few days leading up to the due date of the assignment - due to not "falling behind" or having to do homework on a regular basis. As I'm designing my next unit, these are the factors I want to try and keep. I was also surprised the students didn't like relating things back to their case study families - in class they seemed to put a lot of thought into their families and their back-stories. Or maybe they just preferred a creative component over doing math?

How well do you feel you understand this unit?
(1 = understand none of it, 10 = understand it perfectly)
While no one picked anything higher than 8, 62% of the respondents answered with 7 or 8. The average answer was 6.5, and the lowest was 2. Most felt they knew the material reasonably well.

The test results themselves were more varied, ranging between 49% and 95%, with an average of 74%. On the whole, these test results are better than I would have expected from a college-level math class. Though the students could use their portfolios during the test, most students used them only sparingly, if at all. On the whole, I think they knew the material better than had this been a traditional class.

I think a lot of the understanding came from conversations in class both between students, and between student and teacher. There was a lot of comparison of budgets, houses, mortgages, taxes that came up organically, and that I don't think would have been there if this had just been a note-and-worksheet class.

What did you struggle with on this project?
The students chose what they struggled with from a checklist - they could answer with as many choices as they liked.
Click to enlarge the graphic
Other suggestions were "Sometimes hard to get help because everyone needed it," (1 response), "There was online help?" (1 response) and "Hate online stuff." (1 response)

It's true - many students were reluctant to even start the learning process. A couple of them took about a week's worth of classes before they could figure out where to start their portfolio, and what they needed to do to master a learning goal. Once they got started, however, they worked pretty well throughout the project. I'm wondering if I should have had physical, in-class organization tools for them (leaving binders for their work in class, providing dividers, etc.).

I will have to re-double my efforts to find good resources, since many of the resources didn't appeal to the students, and as one student commented, I was often pulled in 4 different directions because many students required my help (instead of se débrouiller-ing). If I could locate good teaching resources that students would naturally gravitate toward (any idea what that might be?), this might help engage them.

Would I do this again?

Yes. My students seemed to learn the material better as evidenced on the test, though I'm not sure they enjoyed it any more than they "enjoy" sitting through notes and worksheets. HOWEVER, I would need to re-work entrance points for the project (to help students get started) and provide more guidance for demonstrating their mastery of the material (guided questions? specific examples?).

While I was able to frequently assess the students through conversation and observation as they worked through their portfolio, I wasn't able to nail down a system to record what I was seeing and hearing. In the future, I would create a rubric/checklist in a Google form that I could have on my tablet for easy access as I circulate through the room.

There was a lot of good to this project, but still a lot tweaking that needs to be done for future projects. I'm always looking for suggestions - have you tried a large project like this? What worked well, and what did students struggle with?


  1. I absolutely love this idea! I thought it was a great idea to ask for their feedback afterwards as well. I think it teaches them responsibility, time management and perseverance! Great job!

  2. Heather, I love the idea of what you chose to do here, and in fact, I think that many of the successes and struggles that you outlined here align with those people face when using inquiry in the classroom. I'm curious to hear more about what you did when you noticed those students that weren't putting forth the effort and/or were struggling in class. Would mini-lessons and/or more scaffolding have assisted them more? This may also be a case of this being a change to what students are used to, and maybe, in time, the problems that they had this time will not exist in the future. What do you think? How do you foresee changing this type of project to assist those students that struggled?


    1. Thanks, Aviva! I have to admit, I'm feeling a bit better about the project as a whole after several parents commented to me that *they* thought the project was a great way for their children to learn about these topics (we just had parents' night this past week).

      From their feedback, I've added more structure to our course. We still have everything broken down into learning goals, and there is still choice in how they learn/master the learning goal, but I've put forward a suggested order for the students to follow, and given them more concrete checks along the way. I had always offered mini lessons when requested by the students, but with the added structure, the students are requesting them more, which is nice to see.

      I'm considering going back to one larger project again in November (for unit 3) as many students will be away various days for hunting trips, and I'd like to give them the option to pursue topics more independently. We'll have to see how they fare with this current level of organization, and decide as this unit comes to a close, what to keep/modify/eliminate!


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