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How can I improve student learning through independent and group projects?

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How can I improve student learning through independent and group projects?

Independent work is a great way to build confidence and make students active collaborators in their learning. For students to be successful in this kind of work, a clear structure and strategic instructor support are very important. Elements to consider are readiness assessments and initial discussions to ensure that students are prepared and confident, defined roles for members of the group, structured feedback, and clear deliverables.

Below are a few suggestions of ways you can support most designs of independent project, followed by some specific structures used in class designs.

Table of contents

Strategies to enhance independent projects
Readiness assessments and framing discussions
Setting clear expectations
Deliverables
Rubrics
Assigning roles to group members
Providing feedback
Grading considerations
Sharing work with an audience
Independent and group work in hybrid settings
Larger-scale learning structures
Project-Based Learning
Problem-Based Learning
Team-Based Learning

Strategies to enhance independent projects

Readiness assessments and framing discussions

It can be helpful to formally or informally assess students’ state of knowledge before embarking on a project. This can be a really constructive moment, in which students complete some low-stakes quiz or self-assessment, and have the chance to see for themselves in which areas they can develop, as well as . For example, Phil Ruder discusses a relatively formal readiness assurance testing process used as part of a Team-Based Learning structure in his Faculty Teaching Profile–more on that here. Phil uses a special kind of scoring sheet, known as an IF-AT form (Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique); a similar effect could be achieved using a Moodle quiz with the ‘Immediate feedback’ option selected under question behavior.

In Problem-Based Learning, students often begin with a discussion to identify relevant concepts and define the parameters for their investigation, and this discussion can be observed and guided by the educator to assess readiness and provide support. More on this below.

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Setting clear expectations

These initial discussions can be a place to set out clear expectations for the project, especially for the methods to be used and the outcomes that you are expecting students to deliver. Consider sharing your assessment criteria up front, defining the areas where you and where the students will have creative control, and discussing the timeline.

Deliverables

For students to feel oriented and to fulfill your expectations, they need to have a clear idea of what they are expected to produce. This is something to keep in mind even at formative stages of the project. When students are meeting or working independently, whether for initial discussions or more involved work, be transparent about what you want them to be learning in that session, and ask them for a specific deliverable that reflects that. For example, you may want a session to be about them applying a particular concept to a real-world scenario, and you might ask each group or student to describe an application and list out three reasons why this is an appropriate choice.

It can feel overwhelming to monitor the work going on in several parallel projects. A great way to do this can be to assign students a space in a shared document such as a Google Doc, Google Jamboard or FigJam, and have them share their thoughts and deliverables in that space.

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Rubrics

A really great way to ensure that you and your students are on the same page about what they are producing and what it should look like is to work with rubrics. These are fantastic teaching tools because they allow you to really develop a shared understanding of the relative importance of different components and facets of the assignment, as well as making feedback richer and more effective.

When designing a rubric, it is worth giving some thought to the way that Moodle handles grading and what the point grade will mean to a student: so if you are grading on a scale from ‘Exceeds expectations’ through ‘Meets high’ and ‘Meets low’ to ‘Does not meet expectations,’ these should be calibrated to something like the range between 100% – 50% of points.

You might consider building in opportunities for students to see and to get practice working with a rubric, perhaps applying it to their own or one another’s work to come to a fuller understanding of what is expected. It can even be helpful to co-develop a rubric with students once they have a certain level of understanding of an assignment type.

CETCI has run a number of workshops about working with rubrics, and you can access a range of resources on this Moodle site from a working group on the topic. The slideshow at the top provides a helpful introduction.

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Assigning roles to group members

Assigning group roles can be an effective way to keep students focused and on track. These can connect to particular skill groups from your class, or can be more generic. This guide from Washington University in St. Louis’ Center for Teaching and Learning suggests a range of possible roles with wide applicability for different types of situation and project.

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Providing regular feedback

Formative assessment during a project is a way to keep students on track and provide guidance at the right moment. Consider possible sticking or inflection points in a project. Where in the project are students likely to get discouraged or confused? Where might timely feedback avert serious errors and wasted time? Here is a helpful guide from Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation, which explores these and other factors to consider when supervising independent projects.

Feedback sessions during a project can be a great moment to have students practice self-reflection. For example, you might have them evaluate certain pieces of work against a rubric , and discuss the result.

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Grading considerations

A common problem when grading independent projects, particularly ones where an experimental or exploratory approach is encouraged, is that instructors find themselves compelled to make judgements on projects that each look very different from one another.

One method to use in that context is to grade students on both the product of their project, and on a written reflection–and grade soft on the project, and hard on the reflection, which will be easier to grade against shared specifications.

If you’re working with a rubric, it would make sense in this context to make the components more general and abstract than you normally would. Are you looking for complexity? Critical thinking? Incorporating the ideas of others? Think about different ways that each of these could look, and make sure your rubric suits them all.

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Sharing work with an audience

When it comes time for students to share the outcomes of a project, give some thought to how they will share their work, and with whom. In Project-Based Learning, students are often expected to share their work with a public audience, which establishes the real-world relevance of the work they’re doing.

When students are presenting the outcomes of a project, you can have them display even large files from the podium computer by creating a File Request Form on Box to upload their files to a shared folder.

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Independent and group work in hybrid settings

In many of our classes, we have been learning how to involve students when they are unable to be in the classroom. Placing a student who is participating remotely within a group who are otherwise in attendance can be a good way to manage those situations and keep students involved and on track. One method to consider for keeping those collaborations going smoothly is to have those students collaborate over Zoom and record the meeting, so that you can ensure that full participation is happening and iron out any kinks. For support setting up hybrid collaborative structures, and recording multiple parallel breakout rooms simultaneously, please contact Kate McCallum on k.mccallum@pacificu.edu.

You can also consider having students work together in a shared document such as a Google Doc, Google Jamboard or FigJam.

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Larger-scale learning structures

The first two structures are easy to confuse, especially since they share the same abbreviation (PBL). The distinction is that Project-Based Learning has students demonstrate skills with an emphasis on the creation of a final product, whereas in Problem-Based Learning, students investigate a real-world problem. More on that distinction here.

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Project-Based Learning

This learning structure has students work on open-ended projects, often developing a prototype of a solution and working with feedback from instructors, peers and even real-world experts to develop it. Such projects culminate in a public-facing presentation and are often pursued as a way for students to engage with their community.

PBLWorks from the Buck Institute for Education offers abundant resources for working with Project-Based Learning.

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Problem-Based Learning

In Problem-Based Learning, students come to grips with a(n often messy) real-world problem, work to develop their own parameters in developing a solution, and carry out self-assessment at the end of the task to reflect on their learning. The focus is on analysis and hypothesis.

This overview from John R. Savery at the University of Akron gives a thorough overview of the method, and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning has published a handy practical guide to constructing Problem-Based Learning tasks.

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Team-Based Learning

This is a long-term collaborative structure in which teams work together in a focused way on a particular project over several classes or weeks. Phil Ruder explains some of the basics and principles of Team-Based Learning in his Faculty Teaching Profile. A key element of Team-Based Learning is readiness assurance testing, which makes sure that students are ready to proceed to application of the concepts, and also kick-starts the collaboration process in their teams.

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Interested in thinking more about ways to enhance independent and group work in your class? Reach out to us at edtech@pacificu.edu, and we can suggest more resources or schedule a one-on-one.

We are also always looking for more answers to this question, so if you have one that’s worked for you, please let us know!

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