I don’t like tests.

Don’t get me wrong. As a student, I love tests. I’ve always been good at them, but perhaps that’s why I don’t like them as a teacher. I know, intimately, that being good at tests isn’t the same thing as learning course material.

Because I don’t like tests I developed an alternate assessment system for my courses which I’ve used in Intro to WGSS, Intro to LGBT Studies, and Women, Politics and Public Policy with some astonishing results in each instance.

Although you are welcome to use the project system I would encourage you to think carefully about what type of assessments you use in your class because there is no more clear statement of your pedagogy than how you grade your students.

Assessments are meant to measure learning and what counts as “learning” is the heart of pedagogy. Part of why I don’t like tests is because they reflect a model of learning based on the memorization of facts and discourage a critique of the socio-political structures that determine what the facts are.

On the first day of my courses I define the version of learning we will use in class as the following:

Learning is the process through which we take information we did not previously have and incorporate it into our worldview. 

Personally, I think that the entire goal of a humanities education is to develop as a person through critical thinking skills. If humanities classes don’t inspire you to interrogate your worldview then what is the point?

Practically, graduate students often teach introductory courses which students are required to take as a gen ed or an introduction to their major. Many students are less than enthusiastic about these classes. Encouraging students to connect course materials (e.g. texts, conversations) to their major or their lives outside of the classroom often makes them more engaged with the course.

I developed the project system to assess students engagement with course texts and critical thinking skills while allowing them to focus on topics of interest to them. Here is how I describe the projects in my syllabi:

Projects—You must complete a total of 200 points worth of projects over the course of the semester.

There is one mandatory project, worth a total of 100 points, which the whole class will complete. This project is the Follow an Issue project which is done in four increments worth 25 points each. Instructions for each installment can be found in the “Mandatory Projects” folder on Blackboard.

In addition to those you must complete 100 points worth of elective projects. There are multiple possible elective projects on Blackboard in the folder of the same name. Projects which take less time to complete are worth fifty (50) points and projects which take more time to complete are worth one hundred (points). For those who wish to turn in two shorter projects one project will be due March 9th and one will be due May 2nd. If you chose to do one longer project it will be due May 2nd. You are welcome to choose an elective project from Blackboard or to create your own. If you do create your own please email me with your project proposal before beginning your project.

Unless otherwise noted all elective projects are worth fifty (50) points. 

Elective projects are an opportunity for you to pursue a topic of interest from class in more depth. They are also an opportunity to relate the concepts we explore in class to your major, career, or other aspects of your life. 

All projects are based on the idea that you do something outside of class that you are interested in and connect it to course texts. For the shorter 50 point projects I expect that you could do the activity in a day like watch a documentary, get tested for STIs, or attend an on campus event. The longer 100 point projects consist of activities that take several days to complete such as attempting the SNAP challenge, forming a student organization, watching an entire season of a TV show, or an in-depth research project.

To get credit for an elective project you must complete an out-of-class, elective activity and write a 2-4 page reflection paper about the experience. Each reflection paper should connect the activity with a minimum of two readings from class. 

For any 100 point project, unless you have made other arrangements with me beforehand, you will turn in a 4-6 page paper connecting your work to a minimum of 4 course texts.

Each paper needs to be appropriately cited with in-text citations and a bibliography/works cited page. You may use whatever citation format you prefer. 

I grade these projects according to the criteria I shared yesterday.

If students choose to do so they can work in groups on their project but their grade comes from their individual reports which saves you, the instructor, the inevitable headaches of group dynamics.

Projects students have done include, but are not limited to:

  • Holding a kiss-in for marriage equality (in 2014) and making a documentary about it
  • Creating an interactive timeline on the evolution of immigration and LGBT rights in the United States
  • An analysis of toxic masculinity in season one of “Jessica Jones”
  • A policy proposal for how the federal government should address the radicalizing of young white men by white supremacist groups
  • A 35 minute narrated powerpoint about how mass incarceration of black men negatively impacts the education of black children in public schools
  • A kick-a** analysis of Janelle Monáe’s album “Dirty Computer”
  • Proposing a green infrastructure plan for their hometown

In all of these examples, and many more I’m not listing, students went above and beyond the course requirements. These projects were well researched and well written because students cared about what they were doing.

In my experience, most students really like the project format once they get used to it. However, the learning curve is steep. Most students are not used to this level of creative freedom in an academic setting and it can be unnerving. That is why I break the 100 point mandatory project into 4 small papers. The majority of students do poorly on the first one but, after some feedback, excel not only on the other 3 installments of that project, but their elective projects as well.

In my classes, I primarily grade students on QCQ cards, blog posts, and projects. I explain to them that these assignments are not just busy work, but rather a method to allow them to dive deep on ideas that intrigue them. Ideally, the QCQ cards act as a self-curated reference guide for students to use when looking up the readings and quotes that they were interested in as they write their blog posts and project papers. The blog posts provide a low-stakes format to explore course ideas before more fully developing them in the project papers.

Finally, if you’re interestein using projects in your own class here is my most recent list of course projects. (Note: Many students choose to come up with their own projects related to their major or interests but I keep a list of projects for students who don’t want to come up with their own.)

Projects!

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