How to Ensure Big Creative Projects Make a Big Difference in Students’ Lives

by Alex Gay

posted on 04-22-2019

“So much evidence shows that [projects] can benefit every student in terms of critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, communication, and leadership,” says Rick Vaz, director of Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Center for Project-Based Learning. Big creative projects can also teach students the essential creative skill of divergent thinking.

Not only do projects teach these vital skills, but the Gallup-Purdue Index has found that working on a project that takes a semester or more to complete is one key experience that “primes graduates to succeed in their work and lives after college.”

It’s likely that faculty are already assigning big projects and are seeing benefits. But could projects be more meaningful and impactful? Could they better prepare students for the future? As they plan big projects, faculty should focus on the learning goal, make projects challenging, and find the right balance between group and individual work.

Focus on the learning goal

It’s important that as faculty strive to create impactful creative projects, they don’t overlook their ultimate teaching goals. They should be mindful of their students’ abilities and ensure that the assigned design elements aren’t too difficult.

“Debilitating difficulty (students lack the prerequisite skills) and undesirable difficulty (in technology use, course design) should be discouraged,” says Berlin Fang, director of instructional design at Abilene Christian University.

One idea is to assign students to create a magazine. The project would include designing the magazine and writing articles about the course subject matter, and the project can take more than a month.

Here’s how Todd Taylor, an English professor, described his project “Popular Science Article using Adobe InDesign”: “This learning module teaches students how scientific writing and research work by immersing them in the research, writing, and publication of a scientific article for publication for a popular, lay audience. …The primary goal and outcome of the project is for the students to deepen their understanding of how science and scientific communication works. As such, Adobe InDesign is a means to the end of disciplinary learning and not the end itself.”

This project can be adapted across disciplines. And while learning InDesign isn’t the primary objective, it is likely that students’ design skills will improve “because they are immersed in an experiential learning project, potentially with a real, public audience for their work.”

As faculty focus on the ultimate learning outcomes and don’t make design work too difficult, students will learn about the subject matter and gain design skills along the way. “But,” Berlin says, “some difficulties are desirable and necessary for learning to happen.”

Make projects challenging enough

While faculty should be mindful not to demand too much of their students’ design abilities, they should also be mindful of students’ potential. They should create opportunities for students (and themselves!) to leave their comfort zones.

“Project-based learning involves changing the roles that students and faculty may be used to, taking them out of their comfort zones in some cases,” according to the Worcester Polytechnic Institute. “Such changes are not easy, but decades of research have shown that project-based learning and other high-impact practices result in greater student learning gains than traditional instruction, particularly for students in underrepresented groups.”

In other words, creative projects should be challenging, but the challenge is worth it.

Deborah Cohan, an associate professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, says her students have told her she’s a straight shooter, that she doesn’t sugarcoat the truth. Basically, she’s a tough professor, even “prickly.” But her students have thanked her for her high standards and difficult classes, and she’s seen a lot of success. Here’s her advice for faculty who need help being a little tougher in their approach:

One project that is sure to get students out of their comfort zones is a semester-long comparative media project. The base of the project is to create a documentary; the challenge comes because students (re)present the same documentary “in five different modes, using at least five different Adobe Creative Cloud applications.” Students will create (1) a magazine, (2) a podcast, (3) a film, (4) a website, and (5) a mobile app.

This project will deepen and broaden students’ understanding of the subject matter, improve their digital literacy, and develop their higher order thinking skills along the way.

Get the balance right between independent and collaborative work

For big creative projects to be effective, students need to experience the right balance between the deep thinking of independent work and the synthesis of group work. But how can faculty confidently decide what that balance is?

“The best teachers are able to strike an appropriate balance between opportunities to work independently, to use focused collaboration in groups and for direct input from the lecturer,” says Patrick O’Malley at Times Higher Education. “There is no ‘ideal’ lesson formula; what is important is that the balance of activities works to achieve the learning outcomes.”

So it all comes down to what the project needs to help the students learn or achieve. Faculty should decide what the learning outcomes of a project should be, determine the benefits of group and individual work in the context of the project, and then see where there is overlap between these benefits and the learning outcomes.

Creative projects like creating a podcast present plenty of opportunities to balance individual and group work. Let’s say your main learning outcome is for students to learn how to formulate arguments based on evidence. Students would start by researching and interviewing together, allowing them to collect ample evidence. But you may have them record their conclusions individually so that each student can think through his or her arguments without being swayed by peers’ opinions.

Big creative projects should be memorable and beneficial, but they don’t always leave an impact on students. Faculty should focus on the learning goal, make projects challenging, and find the right balance between group and individual work. Following these guidelines will help big projects make a big difference in students’ lives.

Find more ideas for creating meaningful creative projects at your institution.

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