I wrote most of these articles and conference reports while I was doing my M.Ed.(CI). Originally put up on the website TeachAsiaOnline.com (defunct since 2009), I have decided to archive them here as I think most of the information is still relevant and useful for others. (2012) I'm now picking up where I left off to write about more recent seminars I attended.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Getting Your Students to Do Projects

Speaker: Ms. Sheila Taylor
Organised by: Oxford University Press, ELT Division, Bangkok
Date: 24 January 2006
Location: Orchid 2, Ambassador Hotel, Sukhumvit 11, Bangkok

Ms. Taylor started of with an example of project work relating to culture.

She defines project work as, “A more extensive piece of work integrating a variety of language skills, knowledge of other subjects and creative skills. Projects
can be done individually, in pairs, groups or as a whole class. Learners work towards creating an end product which could be presented in spoken or written form.”

A project is used to consolidate learning in a meaningful context with an end product.

The main advantages of project work are:
  1. Motivation: the subject is personal, active (learning by doing) and through the end product, gives the student a sense of achievement.
  2. Relevance: it integrates language with other skills and culture
  3. Educational values: it encourages independent investigation in terms of “…initiative, independence, imagination, self-discipline, cooperation and the development of useful research skills.”, and to use the knowledge in cross-curricula studies.
The keys to successful project work are:
  1. Prepare the students; e.g. give them clear instructions, models and useful language
  2. Introduce project work; clarify expectations (like student behaviour) and build the project up gradually
  3. Display the students’ work
  4. Discuss the finished work with the students (feedback)
  5. Let the students select their own topic (within the environment the teacher sets).

Ms. Taylor recognises that using project work can be more difficult for teachers, but these problems can be solved. Some examples:
  • Classrooms can be noisy. Solution: agree on the allowed noise levels with the students in advance.
  • The teacher may loose control. Solution: start teacher-centered, gradually shift responsibility to the students
  • Time management may be difficult (agree in advance) and
  • Students using their first language (which is sometimes unavoidable, depending on their level of English)
The role of the teacher in project work is facilitator. The teacher helps the students to focus on what they want, advises them in their research, reviews the distribution of work in the teams, keeps time limits and observes and monitors the students. The teacher AS WELL as peers and the students themselves assess the work.

I think project work is very useful for students like mine. Unfortunately, not everyone in our schools agrees, although I suspect the main reasons are that they think it is too difficult for them or they don’t like change.

In the last few years my Thai colleague and I have done three term projects with our senior students

Our projects are in line with definition Ms. Taylor gave us for project work:
  1. Our projects cover 1 term of 12-16 weeks
  2. Cadets work in teams, plan and execute their own work and discuss this with the foreign teacher every week. They pick up new vocabulary and get to know their future working environment while doing research, write about their training, present their work in class using visual aids, while collecting vital documents in a portfolio for later review. All activities are in English.
  3. More than half of the work is done in teams of 4, but class discussions and pair work also happen regularly.
  4. The end products are written work and presentations.
  5. The written work is presented in class
And, what is very important, our students are highly motivated to do the work. We measure this through observation, whether they finish their work in time, the quality of their work, comments on the weekly progress report (that we discuss with the teams every week) and through the students’ evaluation of the course in their final presentation.

Looking at the keys to successful project work we follow all of them:
  1. We prepare a syllabus for the students, containing e.g. an overview of the project, knowledge they need and examples of the kind of work we expect of them.
  2. The project work is built up gradually. The students have an overview of the total picture, and every week we fill in a step.
  3. We display our best students’ work first on the Intranet, after approval also on the Internet.
  4. We assess the students’ portfolio, written work and presentations and ALWAYS give them feedback on how they did. For the presentations, we let them criticise themselves first (What was good? What can be improved?), then we ask the other students and finally we may add something. While they are writing drafts, each draft will be corrected and discussed how they can improve. For the final presentations, we let the students choose the best presentation and we award a small prize for the popular vote. Every week each teams discusses work done and planning with the foreign teacher, who will guide them.
  5. The students are allowed to choose their own subject within the context we set.
Over the years we have learnt from the projects and refined and sometimes changed our ways of working. For example, at the beginning, some students copied work from the Internet. Now we schedule a discussion about copyrights, summarising, paraphrasing and quoting in class before they start writing. Also, at first the students complained about the amount of work outside class; now they can finish in class if they work diligently.

Setting up our project the first time required a lot of time and research. There was not a lot of material available on how to set up and run a project and we had to invent a lot of steps ourselves. At the moment, three years after we started working with projects, proper course books can only be found for the Junior High age group (e.g. Hutchinson).

I think project work is also very useful for higher-level students, especially if the students study for a specific profession (e.g. dentist, doctor, military), for vocational education and ESP (English for Special Purpose) courses.

Hutchinson, Tom. Project (1-5). Oxford University Press. Web. 31 January 2006.
(Update Nov 2011) Project Work in (English) Language Teaching. Nov 2011. <http://project-work-in-english-teaching.blogspot.com/>

More about developing students' language proficiency at Looking for Practical Ways to Help Develop Students’ Language Proficiency http://education-articles-and-conferences.blogspot.com/2011/11/looking-for-practical-ways-to-help.html.
(c) cafavier, 2006-2011

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