Four Questions to Answer at the Beginning of Project Work

Developing shared expectations with your students


As you begin doing projects in your classroom, it is important to clarify your expectations for student work – both in the form of the final performance as well as steps, tasks, and behaviors during the process. If students do not understand your expectations for work, behavior, and performance; it is impossible for them to adequately and accurately meet those expectations.

Expectations should be high, providing adequate opportunities for student voice and choice as well as the ability to go above and beyond. In other words, do not simply state what MUST be done… inspire them with what COULD be done! By clarifying the work students will be expected to do, students understand that their efforts and contributions will be recognized.

Before you set your expectations, be sure to hook the students in the task or problem. You might show a video which outlines a personal dilemma through a compelling story. You might share a set of statistics that confront stereotypes or lead to discussion. Once you have students engaged, provide the parameters for the project.

Here are some specific questions you and your students can work to answer as you begin project work.

1. What are we doing or solving?

This sounds easy, but you need to provide a clear idea of the scope of the project. Structure it like a goal with clearly defined and measurable actions and tasks deadlines. What are students responsible for doing? How will they demonstrate their knowledge, understanding, ideas, expertise, and thinking? How will you assess? How long with they have to work inside and outside of the school day?

The process should be a partnership, so you will certainly want to share project requirements. But be sure to leave lots of room for new ideas and inspiration that will let students know you believe in their potential.

Share the authentic task you have set for them to help students understand what content you will be discussing in the upcoming weeks and why it is important to learn this information. Give the students a project timeline as you explain the steps in the process and clarify how long students will be working on each step.

Effective projects usually involve making something. Perhaps this is a physical solution to a problem someone is having, or perhaps it is creating something beautiful in the artistic sense.

We often repeat the mantra, “It’s the process, not the product.” While we may know that the real learning happens during the process, sharing product ideas, especially if they involve technology, can be a motivating factor for many students. Show your students examples of high-quality work in a range of mediums to clarify product expectations and prompt new ideas.

2. Why?

Students often ask, “Why do we have to do this?” Although this question sometimes seems irritating, it is a legitimate request. In many cases, we as educators can’t even answer this question… all we know is that we have a 500+ page scope and sequence binder that says we have to cover this information this semester!

Project work is about uncovering information, learning to ask questions, and exploring big ideas. If we want to engage our students, we need to make them active participants in discussions about ideas that matter and how these translate into shared goals for their learning.

As you share your project goals, provide students with a list of essential questions that will drive the work they will do. What are the big ideas behind the project? What do you want them to learn? What do you hope they will be able to do as a result of all of their effort during the process? If you can answer these questions, you are on your way to better explaining why students are doing the work.

3. What tools and resources could we use?

Let students know what type of products they can create to meet their project goals. If they decide to make a poster, interactive game, or public service announcement to complete their work, what tools can you provide or suggest for the final product? What tools do they have available for the process of brainstorming and storyboarding? These can be as simple as Sticky notes and index cards, or as complex as high-end concept mapping tools.

In the initial implementation of a project approach in your classroom, you may need to give students specific suggestions for products they might create. As students become more adept at planning, executing, and managing projects, let them help you determine the ways they can demonstrate their understanding.

The goal of project work is not to create a specific technology product (such as a movie, presentation, brochure, etc). If students decide that the best way to raises awareness or change behavior is through a televised public service announcement, then creating a movie is a fantastic choice for end product.

4. How will we be assessed?

Provide students will a clear idea of how their final product, as well as work throughout the process, will be assessed. Are you scoring just the final product? Will an outside consultant or professional be evaluating their work?

You may want to use a rubric or checklist to help students better understand your expectations for their work during the project. If your students are ready, involve them in the development of the assessments. When all parties are involved in discussing how a project will be evaluated, they develop more ownership in the process and a shared set of expectations.

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Don’t forget to clearly articulate what great work looks like during the process. Work doesn’t just mean standards and academic concepts; it refers to effort, behaviors, and habits of mind. Define the “soft skills” you are looking for, such as teamwork, leadership, organization, and time management.

It is important to let students know what behavior is expected during team project work, and you may even want to evaluate successful teamwork behaviors. Being on the same page about effective team behaviors is essential, so be sure to discuss these with students. You can also work together to establish norms for group work.

For example:

There are countless ways to start off a project. Be sure that no matter what you do, students have a clear picture of your expectations for their work on the product and during the process. By answering the four questions enumerated above with and for your students, as well as all the other questions they generate, you foster a shared understanding of excellence and the foundation to help you and your students reach your project goals.

Melinda Kolk

by Melinda Kolk

Melinda Kolk (@melindak) is the Editor of Creative Educator and the author of Teaching with Clay Animation. She has been helping educators implement project-based learning and creative technologies like clay animation into classroom teaching and learning for the past 15 years.

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