Designing and Managing Student Projects

by Deana Swanson


While most of our class time should be spent covering major concepts and the material in our textbooks, there is much value in having students complete projects. It has been proven that students learn more and retain information much longer if they are actually involved in working with or creating something using their minds and their hands.

Projects create a completely different dynamic in the classroom as well. Students become actively involved in learning, and usually really enjoy it. The variety also does wonders for classroom morale. The learning and creativity that takes place is well worth the extra planning and mess.

Designing Projects

Two main categories of projects are written presentations and hands-on projects. While I far prefer hands-on projects, written projects are also very worthwhile for students. Here are a few ideas for both of these categories.

Written: reports, speeches, poster board presentations, portfolios (folders with both written information and photographs or drawings)

Hands-on: three dimensional projects, art projects, science experiments

English Projects: I usually require my students to choose a history topic for their English research papers. That way they are practicing their writing skills and increasing their knowledge of other subject matter at the same time. Other ideas for English projects include designing a class or school newspaper, or writing and illustrating their own books.

History and Art:  Often I will research the folk art of whatever country and/or time period in history to get ideas for projects for history and art. Architecture and invention are also great areas from which to glean ideas for projects.

Science: I try to complete every science experiment in the book, even if it is a day or two after we covered the material because I had to go purchase or find something unusual.

Warning!  Projects can be very taxing on parents. One of my children once had five projects due the Monday and Tuesday after Thanksgiving break. It ruined our family time, and we spent much time shopping for whatever was needed. Because of this, I follow these three rules.

  1. Provide all the supplies needed and the time to do it at school. We have the students for seven hours a day; let’s use the time wisely.
  2.  On the rare occasions where my students do have to complete a project at home, I never make it due on a Monday. Usually it’s due on Thursday, and then if it’s a day late (- 10 points!), they can turn it in on Friday and still enjoy the time with their families on the weekend.
  3.  I never assign anything due the week after a holiday break.

Managing Projects

Before you attempt any type of classroom project, you should have your ducks in a row. A few aspects to consider before trying to introduce projects into your classroom repertoire are timing, purpose, and procedure.

Timing: Timing is very important. I believe that it is best to complete a project after the material that it relates to has been covered in class. For example, last week we learned about the Dead Sea Scrolls. This week in art class, we are going to make some large scrolls with Hebrew writing on them. This enriches their understanding of what we have studied.

Depending on the classes I was teaching and how flexible my schedule was, I have usually done these projects two different ways. If I was also the art teacher, we worked on our projects in art class while we were studying the content in history. If I was not the art teacher, I tried to complete one project about every two weeks, beginning it after the students finished the chapter test (which usually didn’t take the whole period), and then using the next class period to get it completed or well underway. I would then give the students another two weeks (until we began the next project) to finish it, letting them keep their unfinished projects in my classroom and work on them during study halls, lunch, or whenever they had extra time.

Purpose: The purpose for doing any project should be to complement what the students are learning in a specific class (usually history or science), or for the purpose of just being creative and using their brains to think in a different way using space, color, and motor dexterity, as well as learning new techniques and skills (usually art class).

Procedure: This is muy importante. Great classroom management is a must before attempting to do any type of project in class. There are also a few practices that keep the chaos down and the learning up. I have found that if I follow these procedures, the students are usually so enthralled with working on their projects that they don’t talk much or get distracted.

  1.  With students sitting quietly, explain slowly and carefully how to complete the project. Show them a finished project that you have made yourself, if possible.
  2.  Give students a variety of options and ideas. While my students are usually all working on the same type of project, the end results are very different because I’ve presented many different options to them and encouraged them to experiment and try different variations.
  3.  Either pass out the materials yourself or let students go in small groups up to a table and choose what they need. I usually dismiss them by rows to do this and will not let the next row go until the students from the first row are seated.
  4. Next, lead students through the steps, going slowly and modeling what is supposed to be done up front where they call all see.
  5.  Walk around and oversee, encourage, or show students the different ideas that their classmates have had.
  6.  Near the end of the period, give students exact instructions on where to put their projects until they are finished and how to clean up the work area.
  7.  Always give students a grade! These are learning experiences and enjoyable, but they are part of the classwork and need to be completed. Give students a week or two and then follow up with them to make sure that they finish their projects. Make sure they know when the due date is, and have it written on the board.
  8.  Display the projects for others to see.

I have found that working on and completing projects at school has greatly enriched my students’ understanding of the material that we are studying in class. Not only does more learning take place, but the effect that projects have on morale and just helping students enjoy school and each other makes doing projects well worth your effort!

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CONTRIBUTOR: Deana Swanson

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