Reviews, Teaching Today's Students

Taking Another Look at the Project-Based Class

Reinert Center typeset_icon_2014_solid_082214by Gina Merys, Associate Director, Reinert Center

In a recent article, “The Road to a Project-Based Classroom,” Gintaras Duda explains how he has moved from lecture to projects in his quantum mechanics course. The course he describes is one that has gone through three iterations as it has evolved into the wholly project-based class that it is now.  As a non-physicist, what I find most useful about Duda’s course is that the way he has structured it could be adopted for courses in a variety of disciplines.

There are three basic parts to Duda’s structure, based on his philosophy that the instructor is “responsible for scaffolding and the prompts for learning, but the students are responsible for their own learning and managing the use of precious in-class time” (43). These parts are as follows: providing a weekly framework set by the instructor; giving the projects a central focus in the course; and replacing lectures with brief, in-class discussions focused on the needs of small groups as well as the whole class.

Duda’s design is intricate and deeply-conceived.  For instance, the weekly framework he provides for students includes several components including homework problems, lecture tutorials, a reading assignment and reading notes, a written lecture, and examples and papers from the disciplinary literature.  Additionally, “each packet lays out the learning objectives that [Duda] expect[s] students to master that week and reflect upon when they finish it” (43). Each of these components is carefully created and selected to move students through foundational knowledge to engaging that knowledge by actively working through questions, problems, and projects with a team of classmates. From a teaching perspective, he has shifted the work of giving lectures during class to the work of designing the learning experiences of course.

The course structure that Duda describes in this article is ultimately a great example of the Ignatian pedagogical paradigm at work.  Beginning with context (foundational knowledge), he then helps students move through experience with the sample problems, reflection in the embedded tutorial questions, action through the projects themselves, and finally evaluation through the post-tutorial assessments he describes. He leaves plenty of time for students to use in-class time for whichever purposes they see as most important at that time–working together, asking questions, setting deadlines, etc.

In teaching this particular course through the project-based method, Duda reports one of the results that he finds most rewarding is that “project-based learning gives all students a chance to shine and develop” while “students take ownership of their own education” (44). Certainly, these are learning results that we all strive to achieve regardless of our discipline or level of students.

Duda, Gintaras. “The Road to a Project-Based Classroom.” Change Magazine of Higher Learning. November/December 2014.