Why are projects so important in College?
Projects are some of the closest activities you’ll do in College that have some similarity to the working world (that I assume you are trying to join). A project allows you to demonstrate that you can do something from early conception to close to completion.
There are very few jobs in – taking exams
It’s true. There just aren’t many jobs out there in taking exams, regurgitating facts, showing the steps on how you solved something, and picking between letters in multiple choice or picking true/false. The follow up question should be, “Why then do we take all these exams in school?”
Well there are a number of reasons to take exams, but start with this idea that exams are meant to assess how well you have learned a particular set of concepts and ideas. How should a teacher determine if you understand these ideas and concepts and give you feedback on your learning? Exams and tests are a way to do this assessment at a reasonable time cost. For example, with a test that I can create in about 4 hours, have students do in 1 hour, and mark/grade in 8 hours it costs only 17 hours and maybe 52 person hours (for a class of 30 students). If a machine can grade the test, that time goes down. So in many cases examinations are the easiest and most efficient (time perspective) method for assessing student knowledge.
For that same class of 30 students, if I spent 20 minutes in an oral examination to evaluate their understanding, it would take 10 hours assuming that I know the right oral questions to ask and probe, there are no delays between students, the scheduling of these oral questions is magically administrated, everyone takes exactly 20 minutes, and so on. That assessment is harder to implement for the teacher though and the time will always be much greater.
Projects to the rescue
A project in a class is an opportunity to create an activity that can be assessed in reasonable time, but the depth of student work (including creativity, problem solving, communication, doing, and critical thinking) goes far deeper than almost any exam can capture. Plain and simple, the learners doing the project tend to learn far more since they have to do something and solve all the steps to get it done.
I also like open ended projects since students have the opportunity to create and do something they’re interested in. For engineers, this might be one of the few opportunities in their lives to work on their creations as opposed to being told what they need to do.
Finally, projects with their depth and unknown challenges they provide mirror more of what people tend to do in the working world.
Is there anything projects can’t do?
The worst thing about class projects is they lack a completion and quality aspect. For example, a student group starts to do their project, gets close to the end of the semester, and runs out of time. What do they do? Submit what they have done and probably get a lower grade for their work. The same is not true in the real world. A lower grade for not completing a project or delivering a weak project is getting fired. So projects lack a more pure assessment in college.
Second, most projects are done in groups again to simulate the “real-world”. Group work has all sorts of complexities that make it hard to achieve something. It seems like someone always free loads. People are hard to work and get along with.
Projects have many other limitations, and are just another activity/assessment that is part of your learning.
Projects are good
Still, each project you have is an opportunity to establish your portfolio. Projects are the rare opportunities in school to allow you to take some autonomy (see the book Drive by Pinker). Projects can be lots of fun. And projects are about the closest to real you can get in college.
Credits: photo titled: Construction; by Stephen Rush