20 Percent Time Student Work
For Teachers

Snowboarding, Pufferfish and a Music Studio: What Happened When I Added 20 Percent Time Projects to My Syllabus

By Monica Fuglei June 10, 2015
20 Percent Time Student Work

Last December, I wrote an article anticipating the addition of 20 percent time projects to my freshman English courses. While I’d read Dan Pink’s “Drive” and appreciated his comments on the importance of autonomy, mastery, and purpose, I was still incredibly anxious about handing a huge amount of time back to students and worried that they might not take it seriously.

Getting students excited about the 20 percent time concept

I thought it only fair to disclose the 20 percent time project on our first day of class, so we started by watching Dan Pink’s TED Talk, “The Puzzle of Motivation,” and discussing the overall requirements of these projects. I did this for two reasons: It would excite students who might be otherwise resistant to a writing course and it would allow those who lacked buy-in the opportunity to transfer to another class.

Our first major assignment was “pitch day,” where students presented the work they planned on doing and had a chance to form groups if they chose. Subsequent writing assignments included journaling after each 20 percent time day to check in. The final student projects were a presentation to the class and a self-evaluation that aligned course objectives with their work.

20 percent time projects generated meaningful, creative student work in diverse areas

The finished projects from my students were as varied as they were. A writing group averaged 6,000 words per member; another student set up a brackish water tank for puffer fish; another researched autism so that he could more fully help his family with his severely autistic sister.

Other students hiked local trails and wrote reflections on them or learned to play an instrument. While it was not required, students consistently articulated ways that they met course objectives during their projects. One student, who took up snowboarding, discussed the deep research in tutorials and industry writing that helped him prepare for his extremely limited time on the slopes.

During presentations, I often heard students communicate that course objectives were important in a tangible, real-world way. One shared the critical thinking and people skills required to balance a budget while setting up a music studio and recording an album with a group of musicians. Yet another student discussed the frustrations of failure and starting over for her crocheting project, and how she had come to realize the importance of good writing to communicate crocheting directions.

Classmates connected as co-learners, helped push each other to take risks

In addition to presenting work that was meaningful to them, there were two other important characteristics I saw in my class cohorts: boldness and connection. They consistently showed a willingness to push through discomfort, take risks, and do it together. These students also were perhaps the most socially connected class I’ve had.

I believe that the early-semester pitch process encouraged students to bond deeply. Discussing topics and passions communicated vulnerability and allowed them to know each other in a way that far exceeds our normal class discussions. More so than usual, I saw students become friends.

Because writing instruction requires this boldness and connectedness, I feel that 20 percent time enhanced student learning in other places as well. Students were, on the whole, more willing to take risks. They also attended class at a far higher rate than students usually do, without the usual end-of-semester attendance drop-off.

Notes for next time: increase coaching and guidance throughout the process

My initial presumption that 20 percent time projects would take minimal intervention on my part was wrong.  Although they don’t need to be managed, students do need clear guidance and coaching during the process.

Some of the biggest challenges I saw this semester can be alleviated by better planning on my part. Pitch day was not completely successful because students didn’t understand its importance. Some students procrastinated or did not take the assignment seriously. Others didn’t dedicate adequate time to their projects throughout the semester.

In an end-of-semester brainstorm session, my students suggested more preparation for pitch day, routine check-ins, and help to ensure that students chose topics about which they were passionate. Students also suggested that clearly communicating the expectation that their project is aligned with course objectives would help them decide how to express their passions in a way that felt meaningful to their learning.

Student: 20 percent time is ‘my favorite’

About a month after the semester started, a colleague reported a most unusual circumstance. A student got onto the elevator with her and was practically vibrating with excitement. My colleague asked her if she was having a good day. “Yes,” she replied. “I have English today, and it’s my favorite: 20 percent time.”

If I’m being honest, I have to completely agree with my student. 20 percent time was my favorite part of the semester, too. After reflecting on our semester and reading over student evaluation comments, I am excited to continue them in my courses.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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