Friday, October 27, 2017

Tagged Under: , ,

Student Research Projects: Can I make it work?

I'm developing a new elective course for students who are in our ELP Pathways Program. This means that students are taking one or two ESL classes in our program concurrently with one or two mainstream university courses. Generally, these types of students are more advanced and need opportunities that challenge them.

The answer: Project-based learning. Specifically, a research project. Now, I feel like a lot of us tend to roll our eyes when the topic of research papers has come up in professional development meetings. It's just such a mammoth project, requiring a lot of hand-holding. High school students cringe at the thought of digging through "sources" at the library, feeling baffled at why they can't use Wikipedia for all of their material. Writing research papers largely invoke the feeling of unauthentic busywork that is simply not relevant.

But, then again, most of them want to go to graduate school. In my master's program, we had to write a thesis. Surely, there is some value in helping students to go through the process of inquiry, even if we do skip the official "paper" part of the research.

The Assignment
In groups of two or three, I had students take the following actions:
  1. Select a topic within the general context of sociology/human behavior - altruism; collectivism vs. individualism; big data; cyber bullying
  2. Synthesize background information from a video link I provided with an article they found online - Skill: Summarizing and synthesis
  3. Formulate a research question - Skill: Embedded questions to state research purpose 
  4. Produce a written research proposal, outlining their research plan - Skill: Writing a report, proposing action and defending decisions
  5. Collect data through surveys and interviews - Skill: Grammar, listening/speaking
  6. Analyzing data in order to reach conclusions - Skill: Critical thinking
  7. Present results in a Power Point presentation - Skill: Appropriate grammar/writing to effectively convey research on slides; presentation skills
  8. Critically evaluate other groups' project designs/conclusions - Skill: Critical thinking, speaking, grammar 
As we worked over the course of six weeks, this project went turned out extremely well. It gave us the chance to work on and apply skills learned in other classes -- summarizing sources, embedding questions (The purpose of this research was to determine whether there was a difference in attitudes...), giving conclusions and reporting survey results, presentation skills with graphics ("As we can see in this graph,"), academic vocabulary (implies, suggests, concludes, etc), and group discussion skill.

What Students Said: Oral Reflection
At the end of the project, I had each student record a 4-5 minute reflection, answering these prompts:
  1. What did you learn from this project, and how did it benefit you?
  2. What did you contribute to your group's project?
  3. What would you do differently if you were to do the project again?
  4. How well did your group work together as a team? Discuss strengths and weaknesses.
I chose to have them do the reflection orally because it was one additional facet of language use - the monolog. I didn't grade it on pronunciation or grammar, because the object here was content. And I purposely did not give them a lot of time to prepare or script what to say. In this way, their reflection was more natural (as opposed to the report and presentation). Therefore, it made the assignment more authentic for the students.

Here is one excerpt, illustrating some things the student learned in general:
I learn a lot from this project. First, know the importance of cooperation. I had more ideas when I listened to my partner’s ideas. Second, I can ask Americans questions without bashfulness. And I improved my oral skills. Third, I learned that when I do a presentation, I need to face the audience instead of looking at the Power Point because it might make people think you didn’t prepare good for the presentation and it is not respectful.

A second excerpt shows the a more natural (and unscripted) summary of her project, as well as what she learned:
From this project, I’ve learned the internal and external reasons for deviant behavior, such as bad parenting, education, and social situations, and the teenage brain. Parents will influence their kids very well. However, from the project, I have noticed that the teenagers’ brains are active when they are young, so it is easy for them to do something wrong. I have learned how people think about youth deviant behavior. They think it’s annoying, but they can understand it.  Teenagers are still young. Everyone will do something wrong, so they can understand it. And I learned how to control youth deviant behavior, so they don’t do something wrong.

I have known the importance of teamwork. We finished this project together. I believe we could complete our project better with teamwork. Because when we have a problem, we can deal with that problem together, so it will be more easy for us to solve this problem than only one person.  In this project, I interviewed two young adults and sent out an online survey to twenty young people. We did the Power Point together and we did the questions together. If I am able to do this project again, I will interview more people because in this project, we only interviewed four people. Not only students, but teachers and professors. However, it was a little hard for us to interview older adults because all of my friends are students. In my opinion, our team worked well together because we could communicate with each other and share our own opinions.