Bringing some ‘real life’ into courses
Projects can be short or long and they may take a full semester or just a few sessions. Whilst they may vary in what they are asking for (a construction, a programmed application, a design, a report or a written proposal, etc.) and on the type and timing of deliverables, projects have one thing in common: they put students in (more or less) real-life situations. Interdisciplinary projects often drive students to exchange views with experts or with fellow students from other disciplines across campus.
Despite their benefits, students can also find projects to be quite challenging:
- Bachelor students are often used to completing pencil-and-paper type exercises, which are clearly defined and have more or less straightforward solutions. Projects which are closer to real-life situations are often open-ended or ill-defined with multiple possible solutions, each of which can give rise to multiple possible difficulties. This can be a challenge for them.
- Some students can struggle to manage the autonomy which a project gives them, can fail to manage the project process and find themselves rushing to unsatisfactory solutions at the last minute.
- Some students can find themselves expending far more time on a project than is justified by the credits.
- Projects often follow a particular emotional trajectory with students feeling interested and excited at the start, lost and frustrated in the middle and either frustrated or proud (and often exhausted!) at the end. Students who do not have much experience of projects can blame the teacher for their frustrations during the project rather than seeing this as a normal part of the life-cycle of a project.
The following advice may help in organising a project course:
- Put in place a structure to help students to cope with the “cahier de charge”. This may mean giving them a very clear outline of what is expected. Where that is not possible (such as in open-ended design or research projects) having a process in place, where students can validate their project plan at an early stage may help them cope with the uncertainty.
- Students – especially in the Bachelor programme – may benefit from having clear milestones in place which will allow them to manage their time better.
- Clarify for students what the goals of the course are. For example, if the project is ill-defined because students are expected to learn how to deal with ill-defined problems, then tell them that. While it may not stop them being frustrated, it will at least help them to understand that their frustration is not simply due to bad organisation on behalf of the teacher. Likewise, if they know that one goal of the project is that they learn to be autonomous, then they are more likely to understand why the teacher does not give them a straight answer to many of their questions.
- In your discussions with them, draw their attention to the emotional and organisational stages of a project. This can help them realise that frustration and feeling lost can be a normal part of a project’s development.
- If your students have difficulties working as a team, you can encourage them to watch the videos and to read the documents created to help them tackle team-work challenges on http://te.epfl.ch (in French).
In the early stages of a project, you might want to set times for debriefing with groups. This can prevent students from wasting time “hanging around”, while trying to catch the lecturer or assistant.