A ‘smart’ way to assess projects

Tenzing Rapgyal

For the last few years, the hardest challenge I have faced in my professional life is to assess students’ work effectively considering the large number of students I have had to teach: four classes consisting of 30 students each on an average with extra responsibilities to shoulder.

I have tried different types of assessment, but somehow I have not been satisfied with them. Is it because the methods of assessment change with the composition of the students? Is it because I have bogged myself down with poor planning? It is possible that I don’t have any clear ideas as to how to go about it. Or I may not have guiding principles to back up my assessment.

What goals did I set?
I have been trying to find an assessment system which benefits the students without stressing me out. So, I needed to know the professional answers to the following questions:
1. How often should I check students’ work for effective results?
2. How do I assess their creative writing more effectively?
3. How do I assess their project work to serve the purpose it is meant for?

The areas I have cited above are very broad. So, I will focus on effective assessment of students’ project work.

IT IS A BIG CHALLENGE. I have been trying to apply the maxim: Don’t work hard, work smart.

But it is exciting.

In our school, every month, students are assigned project work in different disciplines. I have noticed that students across the classes work on their project at the 11th hour. If they are given one month, they start working in the last week. If they have a week, they rush a day or two before the deadline. Moreover, when we assess their work, we know most of their contents are lifted directly from different sources, viz. online, without giving any credit. These days, due to internet, it has become easier for students to “research” and plagiarize others’ work.

I have always felt that I should do something about it before it becomes a trend. The crux of the problem is the lack of time management and basic research skills on the part of the students and the absence of regular and continual assessment of the ongoing process of students’ work on the part of the teacher.

What actions did I take to achieve my goals?
With these ideas in mind, I started planning the English project month. So, first, a democratic choice of topics/subjects is very important. For both classes, IX and X, I had prepared some, but in the class we brainstormed on what they would work on for their English project. I divided the students into groups. Having discussed the task, they came up with different ideas. In class IX, the ideas they came up with were not different from what they had already done in the past. So, I suggested that they should act as their favourite authors in a wax museum. They liked the idea. In class XA, out of a noisy session of brainstorming, came an idea to do a TV commercial, which they had done in class IX while working on puns. They know how a pun is used in advertisements for a humorous effect. And in class XB, there were lots of ideas, but we decided on making a short film based on the crimes of passion. I took advantage of their craze for Crime Patrol, a television show. In both classes, IX and X, I thought that they should do a short documentary film on some social issues such as slum dwellers or street children. However, I humbly sacrificed my ideas to their interests.

Here is the most important aspect of project work: planning, which is time management and resource allocation. Usually, we don’t stress much on this aspect. We just give them some general guidelines, but when we assess their work, we know something went wrong somewhere. So, what I did this time was that I spent some sessions in the class as lessons on forming groups with mixed talents, assigning specific roles to every member according to their interest and strength, making a rough plan of the task, dividing the project work into manageable chunks, setting deadlines to finish the different parts of the plan, self-monitoring and self-assessment of their work in progress on a regular basis and monitoring their work continually by asking the group leaders to report the progress they have made in the class.

We had a discussion on the criteria for assessment so that students know the expected learning output which will guide them in regular self assessment of their work in progress. Their individual project files were evaluated on the basis of completion of work, details and reflective elements in report writing. Likewise, to assess their contribution to team work, I checked the responsibilities they took, ideas they shared, leadership qualities they displayed and how regularly they were present when doing the group task – which is reflected by the group leader’s overall comment – from the report they submitted to me.

To keep track of the contribution they made on a daily basis and to help them avoid procrastination, I made it mandatory for them to maintain individual files, not a group file, which is the common practice, to record their daily progress report. I showed them a simple template with three questions: What did we do today? What was my contribution today? What needs to be done tomorrow? The daily report of each student was signed by their group leaders with his/her remark. And then every second or third day, before the start of a lesson, group leaders informed the class how far they had progressed, what challenges they faced and how they overcame them.

Three days before the deadline, I took stock of the final progress of their work. A day before the final day, we discussed how and when we were going to display the project work in the classroom. For class IX, it was not possible for everyone to play the roles of their favourite authors. So they chose the best among their respective groups and presented in front of the class. The rest of the students showcased their projects every day before the start of the lesson. Class XA, which worked on a TV commercial using puns and XB, which had been shooting short films based on crimes of passion, screened their projects in the class. There were some glitches like the absence of casting and minor language errors. But it was too late. I felt I should have checked their films a couple of times; but is it right to do so, since it was for assessment?

On the final day, the projects were displayed in the class. It was during the 20-minute recess of class that the projects were showcased. Class X did not get enough time to show all their projects, so after the recess; class XA and XB watched one another’s work during the fifth and sixth periods with permission from the subject teachers concerned. I am planning to show their projects with other classroom activities captured on my camera to all students before the end of the year.

After collecting their project files, my test of patience started! Since I had asked students to make individual files, I had to go through 101 files consisting of around 1000 A4 size sheets with their daily progress reports, presentation write-ups, reflective writings, which consisted of how their experience working on the project had been, what challenges they faced, how they overcame them, what they learned from the whole experience and how they could have done their project better; group leaders’ reports specified how he/she had been while working on the project, what his/her contributions were and what the areas that he/she needs to improve upon are; and the materials they had collected. It took me a month to complete the assessment spending one and a half hour after class every day except weekends. It was helpful for me to get a deeper insight into students’ minds and manners. Their reflective reports revealed the challenges they faced, viz., time management, team work and logistic arrangement. What they learned as revealed by their reports is to cooperate, share ideas, juggle between different academic and social skills, deal with unexpected turns in the course of their project and manage time and resources.

Later in the class, I told them that they tried their best to overcome their challenges, which we all face at work and in life in general, and it goes on and we should keep learning and improving.

What was the students’ experience?
Let me quote some unedited reflective lines from the students’ project reports highlighting some of their learning experiences.

Sonam Choedon declares, “This project, apart from the other projects that I have involved, had been a challenging one. I have faced fights and had to come over it. This was not easy. The commercial project was challenging and it was more than a mere language project. This was a new experience for me.”

“Well, this year’s English project was fun, informative, interesting, one of the things I like and in some point, a little like a daily test,” remarks Tenzin Woeser. He further opines, “Times came when things were out of our hand like for shooting, because of the busy activities schedules. Well we couldn’t change the school’s timing but could manage our time.”

Tenzin Lekden shares his learning experience thus: “I always had to think alternative, i.e., what if he falls ill? What if she goes outside? What if camera is not available? And what if our video gets deleted accidently? I had also learned to use a software to make video for I was video editor and man, don’t know how to use it, so I had asked my seniors how to use it. Many of them I myself explored and learned so I know that the more time you explore the computer the more you learn.

Tenzin Thinley, a group leader, advises one of his members, “…need to learn how to be patient.”

Tsethar writes, “My author is George Orwell and his book, Animal Farm. To be true I have read it in last year, but today, I not only going to read it I am going to research on it. When we present it before gen Rapgyal, our English teacher, I become aware of mistakes and unfinished works that we had put forward on his table…”

Dhondup Tsering, a group leader, realizes, “I was right that you are creative and make good action plan. But due to you and me, we waste few precious time of our group. I realize it was my false and I am sorry for that.”

What has been my learning experience?
The most important learning experience at the end of the project is that if one delves into one’s mind in search of answers to questions, one will find them. The torch that will guide you through the dark recess is reflection. So, one has to question oneself to get the answers.

Of course, one can steal others’ ideas! However, I don’t remember the specific places as my robbery was random. In my first attempt to find activities for English project work, Google guided me to some schools where I pillaged the idea of Wax Museum for Class IX, which I modified and adapted to my need; in another search for the criteria of the assessment of short film making for Class X, as it was an unknown territory for me, it directed me to sneak into some universities to loot; and next time when I pressed my query to Google about project based learning, it showed me many sites where I lifted some arguments as to why this approach to learning is indispensable to teach students the 21st century skills.

Next time, I should make a list of the sites on Google from where I steal ideas to acknowledge my intellectual theft. I need to be more professional and get rid of the webs on my academic ceiling.

The author teaches English to 9th and 10th grade students in Tibetan Children’s Village School, Dharamsala Cantt. Distt.Kangra, Himachal Pradesh. He can be reached at tenrap83@gmail.com.

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