The Bright Side of Competition Projects

Thinking about how best structure a class and what kind of assessments work best and why that is the case can make a person go crazy. This week I was reading through Mark Canes article ‘Setting Students’ Minds on Fire’ when I came across the last paragraph in his article it made me reminisce about my first years as an undergraduate student.

But research shows that the strongest gains come from pedagogies that feature teamwork and problem solving. Experience also suggests that teams work harder when they’re competing against one another, and that students learn more when they’re obliged to think in unfamiliar ways.

Makes me think of when I little freshman student in undergrad. During our freshman year as mechanical engineering majors we were required to take Statics 1, a relatively boring class since things don’t/ aren’t supposed to move. But, the professors that taught the class liked to spice it up every year by having a team project at the end of the semester. This project would change every year to keep it more interesting and I’m guessing reduce cheating. My year we had to design a linkage and figure out a counterbalance for a crane in order to hold a specified weight that was hanging off the boom of the crane (the picture to the left helps illustrate what I’m talking about).

All of the teams were pinned against each other and the winning team was decided based on the team that made the lightest link that didn’t break and specified the smallest amount of counterbalance weight that would prevent the crane from tipping over.

I enjoyed this project mainly because of the challenge of figuring out how to design the link and the weight necessary, but also because of the competition part of it. By ‘pinning’ us students against each other it helped push us further and made us want to do better. One important key feature is that the team rankings only a small effect on our grade, meaning if you were the last place team you could still have a chance at getting a B on the project if you did everything else perfectly. For this reason, you had many teams that designed on the edge using factors of safety of 1.1 or dare I say 1.01 when determining the thickness of the link and the weight necessary to keep the crane from tipping. Us students weren’t playing it “safe”, we were building the edge. We wanted glory or catastrophic failure!

I think that projects like this really helped make what is typically a boring class more interesting. In addition, being completely honest, I feel like I learned more doing this project than I did sitting through the couple hours of lectures every week.

So, to try and tie this long-winded story back to the topic of assessment. I feel that project based assessments can be of more use than exams. When working on projects you have the ability to test if students actually learned the information without putting a stiff timeline on them. Additionally, when it comes to projects the project can typically be designed to push a student’s knowledge further and ensure that they are capable of connecting the dots between things.

I don’t completely agree with using grades as an incentive for getting better work because students either play it safe or if they do try to push the limits and fail they just drop the class and take it later to avoid risking their GPA. But if only a small part of the grade is used as an incentive than students may be more prone to pushing the limits, kind of like how the team rankings was done for my statics project.

Lastly, for projects to truly be useful they need to be properly constructed. I think the critical part of a good project is one that covers multiple topics that are used in the class. Working in teams can also be a useful, but I don’t find it to be as critical as the multi-topic criteria.