Project or Test?

Project based learning is a teaching method that IACS has fully embodied, evident in every class regardless of subject. Many members of the community will agree that project based learning is greatly beneficial to understanding the material presented, but are projects always the most purposeful way for students to indicate their understanding of the class material?

From fifth and sixth grade social studies projects to the culminating Capstone Projects completed by sophomores in their Global Studies classes, it is clear that project based learning is what IACS’ teaching method is all about. “I remember in Middle School…we were doing hands-on things like making artifacts,” reflected Junior Jane Nealey on her Middle School project based learning experience, indicating the emphasis placed on projects starting right from the Middle School level.

Pros and Cons

“For pros, I think that project-based learning allows us to apply the things that we learn in class content-wise and apply it in a different manner that you may not be able to do say like in a lab…We’re doing a project called structure determines function…where students are asked to think about molecules. Molecules are so small that you can’t see them, but we need to learn about their molecular shapes and be able to piece information together,” Science Teacher Raksmey Derival stated.
With science classrooms, labs are a popular form through which students apply work. Derival pointed out how with subjects like Chemistry, where studying molecules is a significant part, it isn’t possible to apply the information through hands-on labs. That’s where project-based learning comes into play as teachers like Derival “often want kids to apply that information in a lab-type setting [but when that is not possible, find that they can] explore in another way and apply through that project space curriculum.”
But while Derival expressed her enthusiasm for project-based learning, there was one major con that she pointed out. Projects are time-consuming and Derival explained how “projects that [she likes] to do are ones that aren’t done in one class or even in a week’s worth of classes. [The projects] take up weeks of my curriculum time which could be used to learn about another concept or maybe even another unit.”
The follow-up con that Derival mentions is how this means that the curriculum can’t be as comprehensive, “but it is deeper and [students] get that question answered which is ‘Why do I have to know this?’ and ‘How does it apply to me?’”

Purposeful Projects

The class for which project based learning works the best, according to those interviewed, is history. Regardless of the topic of the class or the essential questions the curriculum focuses on, history projects are among the most meaningful and purposeful to students.
A perfect example of this recently completed by sophomores is their Capstone Project. Being one of the longest projects sophomores completed, the Capstone Project spanned over 6 weeks, with students choosing an essential question to explore to its fullest. Questions ranged from how a prominent historical figure made their mark, with figures including Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, to whether the use of terror could ever be justified.
Students delved deep, conducting extensive research on related topics, before answering the question in an organized and well-thought out position paper. The combination of research, writing, and other skills which came together to form the Capstone Project are clear examples of the complexity projects can have, something that cannot always be achieved through tests.
A project completed by upperclassman is the Bending the Arc project completed in the Jim Crow & Civil Rights class, and it is a project which many upperclassmen have noted to be extremely meaningful.
The Bending the Arc project required groups to “brainstorm, propose, plan, and implement a social justice or human rights-centered project that [sought] to positively impact other people.” The project guidelines went on to breakdown the different types of project categories which students’ projects could fall in, like activism, service, and awareness and education projects.
Senior Alissa George was a part of the Jim Crow & Civil Rights class last semester and agrees that the project was extremely purposeful. “I think the aspect that made it so purposeful for people was the amount of skills that had to be learned…I had to learn to work with a very large group (8 people), and had to learn to step up when others didn’t. I had to learn to accept others opinions and ideas, even if they weren’t the best way to go [and] I had to do so much planning,” she explained.
The skills George mentions, specifically in terms of working in a group, are skills which can only be practiced through a project and not a test, showing the range of skills that a project requires a student to apply, outside of the curriculum itself.
While the Capstone and Bending the Arc projects are only two of the many History projects, these two clearly represent the idea of a history class being able to often include many meaningful and purposeful projects. What’s the reason for why projects work so well in History? “In history, especially when you are studying [the] world and civilizations, you have a whole world of things to pull from. You have arts, and you have different pieces of culture,” Nealey explained.

Are all projects meaningful?

On the other side of the coin, math projects are ones which students interviewed have described as less meaningful. This is not to say that the math classes aren’t interesting, or the projects aren’t as creative; it is simply that students feel that what they’re getting out of math projects isn’t as meaningful as projects completed in other classes.
Nealey is one of many students who feels as though math class should include fewer projects, and more tests. “I definitely think that math class should be mainly tests,” she stated. “Math is about…numbers and equations and sometimes you can’t get around having to memorize those things.” As for why she feels as though projects specifically are not as helpful or meaningful, Nealey described projects as “less of a test of your knowledge and more practicing what has been given to you.”
“In math class, these projects turn into busywork practicing concepts that we’ve already learned, but at a very basic level. Instead of having a test on a concept in a day and then moving on, whole weeks or even months of class time is [spent] on work that we would generally do for homework, except with a ‘creative component’ added to it.”
George agreed, explaining that tests in math class appear to be more beneficial when evaluating a student’s understanding of a concept. “[Because] math is highly skill based, I think that it’s much easier to be able to assess students’ knowledge of a math skill through tests,” she explained.
When asked about projects versus tests in a math classroom, math teacher Suzanne Hickey explained that memorization isn’t needed when a student really understands the concept: “I don’t have kids memorize equations for the most part because…by understanding the problem and the way to solve it, you don’t need to memorize the equations.” She went on to stress that it is “extremely important that people can apply the math that they’re learning otherwise there’s nothing to attach it to either and it’s just memorization that goes away.”
In classes that Hickey teaches, she bases the class off of Exeter problems, problems which she feels are each like a project of their own, requiring the student “to do a lot of thinking.”
Hickey went on to explain how while students may feel that projects in math are busy-work for students who are able to quickly solve the equations, math projects are essential for students to really practice their skills and understand their work, and most importantly be able to answer the questions of “Can I communicate what I know?” and “Can I communicate this to others so that they could look at this and understand what I solved and what I was thinking.”
Hickey also mentioned that in classes where she uses Exeter, she tends to do very few projects. The reason she said is “because…projects take up a lot of time,” aligning with what Derival mentioned earlier as a con of the use of projects, and also aligning with what Nealey said about projects taking up a lot of class time.
But there is something very important about what Hickey mentioned about projects. “A good project should require some hard-thinking and application,” she said, which raises the question, based off of Nealey and George’s comments, of whether math projects they have completed in the past filled these shoes accurately.

Project Pressure

“I’ve had projects that have been completely useless to my life and school learning, and others that I’ve felt could only be properly learned through a project,” George stated, when asked about her experience with projects in the past.
If that is the case, why is the emphasis on those projects still being placed? “I…think that teachers feel pressure to create hands-on projects because of our school’s emphasis on it,” Nealey stated.
When asked, Hickey said that she in no way feels pressure to create projects for her students. “I do not feel obligated to include projects in my classes,” she said. “I use projects when they are well aligned with the content and when I feel students will gain a greater understanding of the applications of mathematics.”

A Fine Balance

Both the use of projects and tests in the classroom come with their own pros and cons, and while some students may feel that there is a lack of tests, or an unnecessary amount of projects incorporated into classrooms at IACS, what Derival notes about the use of these different tools is the following: “A good teacher doesn’t just use one tool to do all of these assessments; a good teacher has multiple tools that they can use to assess that student.”
As for how a class’ curriculum affects the use of tests and projects, Derival said that the balance of the different tools used in a classroom are dependent on “what the teacher’s trying to get out of it.” This is something that George also commented on saying how whether projects are purposeful “depends on the class, and even then the subject.”
Therefore, it may not be that projects or tests are individual tools that may be better than one another, or that each tool only works for a certain subject or class, but that a combination of the two and many other tools are the most beneficial in a classroom of students with a range of strengths, weaknesses, and interests.

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