Asking Students to Choose Their Own Projects

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Choices by Jason Taellious, on FlickrThe students in my technical writing course have just submitted their coursework proposals, which outline the projects that they will complete for the rest of the term. This assignment is a crucial part of my plan to increase the role of choice for students this term.

As I discussed last week, one of my goals for the new school year is to give students more choice in their assignments. Two previous activities have built up to the coursework proposals. First, I asked students to conduct an investigation of writing in their field, reporting their findings in a table that listed the kinds of writing and their key characteristics. Based on that investigation, I asked them to choose writing superlatives for their fields.

In their coursework proposals, students reflect on the information they have gathered about writing in their fields and propose up to three projects that they will complete during the remainder of the term. Specifically, I have offered them these choices for their three projects:

  • Open Projects Chosen from Your Analysis Table (up to three)
  • Genre Analysis Report (counts as two projects, as it is a longer project)
  • Midterm Exam on Readings

The coursework proposal assignment itself follows a customary proposal format, asking students to explain their proposed plan, provide justification for their choices, and suggest a schedule for completing the projects. The proposal gives students the chance to customize the second half of the course to focus on projects that specifically meet the needs of someone in their fields.

Let me provide an example. A student in computer science has explored the kinds of writing that she will likely do as an Android developer. While she has completed an internship and three years of coursework, there are kinds of writing in her field that she has had little practice in doing. She has written internal documentation in the code that she has developed, for instance, but she has never tried creating external user documentation. For one of her three projects, she wants to write a short user manual on how to install an Android app and customize its settings.

My goal with this course structure is to ask students to focus on projects that will make a difference in their future, rather than random assignments that may not connect to them at all. The projects that are right for the Android developer simply aren’t right for everyone in the class. A student in environmental science, for example, may not need to write user documentation, so that student chooses a different path, proposing to write two reports on an environmental study she has conducted—one for other scientists, and one for the public.

As promising as this free-form approach is, there are challenges. In particular, asking students to demonstrate such a high level of agency in their coursework leads to some confusion. Students rarely have much input in what they study in a course, so they have questions about how to proceed. Some students wonder if this structure is some kind of trick on my part, asking me if they can really write what they want to. I realized how much of a challenge this system was for them when about a third emailed me or posted in the course forums for clarification.

Now that students have submitted their proposals, I look forward to seeing how they took advantage of the choices that the assignment offered. I know I will find other challenges to address as read students’ submissions, and I am already thinking of changes to make when I teach the course again. I’ll share more on what I find as I read their work in my next post. In the meantime, if you have a question or suggestion, please leave me a comment below. I look forward to hearing from you.



[Photo Credit: Choices by Jason Taellious, on Flickr, used under CC-BY-SA 2.0 license]

About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.