I’m grading end of semester projects this week. Generally speaking, they are full of the concepts and tools that we have worked with in the course of the semester. Things that are a regular part of the curriculum. Many of the projects also include things that were never covered in class. Students will find out how to do things to make projects do what they want. There are some uses of images beyond the basics. Several students found out about timers and ways to make their programs pause between operations. Others discovered different types of collections (hash tables and array lists) that we didn’t get to in the limited time with have in a one semester course. It’s great stuff.
I wish we could cover all those topics during the semester but of course we have to focus on the basics. I can’t possibly cover everything that every students wants to learn.
As I was thinking about this I came across a post by David Jakes called Cow Paths of Learning. In it he talks about designing curriculum around what students want to learn. It’s a fascinating post and it all sounds pretty idealistic. How does one make that work though?
Project based learning seems to me to open some possibilities in that direction. With larger projects ones that are designed for more than a demonstration of a single concept, can allow for students to add extra beyond what is covered in a lecture. In fact, different students can go in different directions and learn different things.
This can make for more work for the teacher of course. But not a crazy amount. The teacher becomes a guide who points students in directions. Send them off to a developer web forum, some sample code somewhere, or even (gasp) the documentation or a textbook.
I have been writing some simple “how do I” documents for some of the frequent directions students take off into. I keep thinking I should do more. I’m torn between wanting to make it easy for students and worrying about making it too easy. It’s like hints which I also struggle with. (links below). Where is the line between too much and not enough information?
When push comes to shove though I would rather focus my energies on providing opportunities and motivation to learn new things. Letting students create projects that really interest them and that cause them to want to work to learn new and different things is a huge win in my opinion. I’ll worry about too much help later.