Rethinking Project Based Learning

Last trimester was my first foray into PBL (Project based learning). Unfortunately I was thrown into the course during week 4, so my students had already been given a rundown of what was going on and had been working on projects for a couple of weeks. Because of this (and also my relative newness to the job) I felt that I couldn't make any major changes to the way that the unit was being run, and I just let the course that was set continue on it's way. While the near failing of one student and the failing of another was not directly a result of this, I feel that the way that the course was run last trimester did not help.

So let's go into this in more details, this class was run in a traditional "You must have done this by the end, go make something" style. Due to this the students had a lot of free reign into how they decided to go with it, and were very very free to make mistakes. So we have student A and student B.

Student A

Student A had real life issues pop up, and due to the very strict time scale of his project things slowly got more and more out of hand until he started dreading every day that caused it to go out of hand. I must stress that this PBL marking rubric was made to allow that the final results are not as important as the journey and learning undertaken. But that didn't quite help this student, because as he saw himself fall behind he felt like the building was burning down around him.

A Student Project

Student B

Student B didn't have the same disadvantage. As far as I can tell, there were no external influences that caused him to fall behind, it was simply something that slowly got worse and worse throughout the trimester. There were no real milestones other than 'finish by this date', so there was always tomorrow. This was especially helped along by the lack of documentation.

So other than brushing close to failure, what caused both of these students to do so poorly? Personally I feel that it was because there were no real solid milestones they had to beat other than the final handover. Because of this one student had set himself unrealistic goals, while the other didn't see the milestone coming up until it was too late. So how am I planning to rethink it for this trimester?

Smaller set projects

While it is important that students work on their own to develop projects and push them forward, I have implemented more smaller projects (1-5 weeks generally) so that there is a milestone very firmly set up for a close date. Due to the number of small projects, it also allows a student to have a disaster during one of them and still pass the unit (as all Learning Outcomes are duplicated).

More realistic and usable projects

All of the larger projects are now linked with real life work. For example students in Studio 2 will be creating a system that allows other students to host their work. This gives them a realistic investigation of requirements as well as the knowledge that if they create a fantastic program it will be used by the university. For studio 3 on the other hand I have given them real games / companies that they will work with. This project work will give them an even better portfolio for when they leave university.

So let's see how this goes...

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