How to Prepare College-Bound Students for Doing Complex Projects
Is your high school preparing students for the long-term projects they’ll have to do in college?
I found out that my own school has room for improvement after we convened a panel of six high school alumni returning home after their first semester of college.
When we asked them if they felt they’d been well prepared for college, they agreed they had been — except for one key area: They didn’t have enough prep for completing independent, long-term class projects.
This is not surprising: Most of their high school work consisted of either overnight (or very short-term) assignments, or in-class quizzes and tests. They didn’t do much that helped them understand, plan for and complete a complex, long-term project.
It was clear our students needed more emphasis and focus on long-term class projects. Here’s how I think high schools can get better at preparing graduates for this one crucial phase of college:
Remember: It’s more than just reading and reporting
For a project to be challenging and beneficial, it has to go beyond asking students to research a certain topic and submit a paper summarizing it (though writing that kind of research paper is an important skill). A long-term project should consist of a well-defined final product — written, produced, recorded or presented — that requires the student to study a topic in depth and see it from multiple angles.
The project should be specific enough that the student can complete the work with minimal help, and it should require independent thought and approach. This is a challenging task for a teacher, but you’ll see the value when you see the high quality of the student submissions and how well the project improves their classroom experience.
Expect student visits and questions
Too many students don’t ask for help. When presenting and explaining the project, encourage students to make it a point to come and see you for advice and guidance. College students must feel comfortable approaching a professor for extra help, so it’s a good idea for high schools to be giving them some practice.
Another step is to require small groups of students to meet with you during extra-help sessions — regardless of their understanding of the long-term project. Asking for help when you don’t really need it is good practice for when you really do need help. Expect the students to practice the social expectations that come with project completion.
Mirror the world of work
The world of work has changed dramatically. Collaborative work, often done remotely and revolving around a “deliverable,” is the norm for today’s workers. Students who lack the ability to approach, understand and complete a long-term project will enter the workforce significantly handicapped.
Schools constantly have to evolve not only to meet student needs, but also to recognize the world they will be entering after graduation. The skills of 10 or even five years ago are changing even more, and teachers should recognize that classroom practices need to change too.
It feels good to solve problems
One great benefit of a project is the feeling of pride (and relief!) when the final product is completed and presented. An old adage is that if you want to have good self-esteem, then work on completing estimable acts.
Following through on a complex, long-term project offers everyone the chance to feel good about their work and the effort they put into it. If the project focuses on solving a social ill, students will benefit even more.
While it’s good to allow students do a large part of the work independently, this sometimes throws off teachers used to the traditional method of instruction. Helping students do their work still qualifies as teaching, so don’t think you need to be doing all of the heavy lifting for students to learn and succeed.