Sunday, September 27, 2015

Putting Stats Projects into Practice

Over the years, one of the ways that I've grown as a stats educator is to incorporate more projects and activities into my classroom routine. I often use these projects as a cumulative assessment and as a way to summarize units. These projects can be time-consuming, but I find they are worth doing to help students assimilate information and apply statistical skills in new ways. They help make concepts more tangible, and have been a contributing factor in my students success on traditional tests like the AP exam.

I often get asked how I balance projects with the packed AP Stats curriculum, make the projects appealing for students, and ensure student success. One of the most satisfying comments I got last year from a student in regard to her final project: "Never enjoyed a project this much. It didn't even feel like a project." It has taken me a while to get the hang of how to make project-based tasks work. Now that I've done lots of rounds of them, though, I love how much it has influenced the culture of learning in my classroom.

So, here's a long overdue post to respond to these requests. (While this advice is based on my experience with statistics projects, I see no reason why they wouldn't apply to any STEM project.)

  1. Keep projects limited in their scope. You might think it can all get done, but there really is a point when projects can get out of hand. Especially if the expectation is for students to do work outside of the classroom, reign it in to just a few key components. I generally make group projects to be the amount of work one might think is enough for one person. You want students to be challenged by the thinking they'll do, but not by the amount of work. If you want to do a large project, think about breaking it up into doable pieces to avoid overwhelming students. 
  2. Make projects connect to a context. This is really key to making it a great learning experience. You should have a clear idea of the learning intent for each component of your project, but it should also be a way for students to get the experience of applying knowledge and skills to something real and meaningful. This keeps projects more about telling a story through their investigations and less about simply doing the statistics. This may seem counterintuitive, but projects are a way to do statistics differently not just do more statistics.
  3. Be thoughtful in selection of group members. For me, projects are like a social quest for knowledge. Teachers should plan project groups to include the right blend of students to help make it a good experience. I like groups in which the members are around the same level of ability and can be productive together. I often give students a bit of say in this by allowing them to request one student with whom they might want to work as well as one with whom they wouldn't. In a group of three or four, that means I can guarantee students at least one person of their choosing.
  4. Give clear instructions about the product. The product might be a poster, a report, a presentation, or simply a graph. For each project, I give a detailed writeup including my expectations, the timeline, and a grading rubric. In addition, I provide relevant suggestions and resources. I see students referring to these project outlines often as they are working. For younger or less advanced students, you may consider using templates* to help guide how you want the outcome to look. P.S. Anytime there's been something that wasn't such a hit, I change it right away so it's ready for next year.
  5. Be vague about the route required. Allow students to come up with their own path of discovery for how they are going to complete the project. This is one of the ways in which projects are a real learning experience for students: problem-solving to complete a task. Think it's going to be too much for students to handle on their own? Have students write proposals first for which your approval is mandatory. 
  6. Allow flexibility and encourage creativity. Projects in which students can pick the topic, for example, are so much more interesting and fun. My students choose topics that I would never have considered. If you have students who are interested in connecting their project to another class, see if that would be a good fit. Planning a project which allows from some variability can be challenging, but creates an opportunity for each group to grow. 
  7. Request a product that's appealing to outsiders. I tell my students that the project results should be statistically correct, but also enjoyable to someone who has never taken a statistics class. It helps students think about using accurate terminology and procedures, but also forces them to explain their work in plain language. Anyone who walks by project posters in the hallway, for example, should be able to comprehend and enjoy the results. Bonus: great for parent-teacher conference nights and recruiting future students. 
  8. Create interim check-ins. I find that if I let students go too long without my feedback, sometimes the results can be disappointing both for me as well as the students. My goal for each student group is to have a successful product, and the best way to ensure this is to spend a bit of time checking in with each group. That way, if students have encountered a problem during the project or are behind in their progress, I can help guide them back on track.
  9. Allow students to peer review. This is one of the things that I would like to do more of because I see how much my students get out of this process. Students might feel weird about this at first, but once they get accustomed to it they give really great, but honest, constructive criticism to their peers*. It reinforces how to evaluate based on the specific context and content, what works and what doesn't, and the empowerment of helping their classmates to improve.
  10. Set aside class time for projects. Yes, I know, you don't have time. I know all about that. I have learned, however, the economy of missing a day or two for a project is well worth it in the end. For many of my students, finding time outside of school where all members can meet is difficult. Having some classroom time set aside has been a really helpful compromise. The key for me in making this time productive is planning ahead and having specific goals in mind.
*See Liz Whelan's MT² talk to see how she uses templates and technology-based peer review in her middle school science classroom.

Anyone else have success with projects in their classroom? Would love to hear any additional suggestions and advice that you have.

(Photo: a poster from a past group's bias experiment project.)

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