Everybody these days is talking about “Project-based” learning. The term can be quite confusing for a person hearing it for the first time. Honestly, when I first came across the term in college, I expected a course which had absolutely “NO THEORETICAL EXAMINATIONS”.
When the lecturer finally explained the distribution of the marks, it became apparent that only about 40-50% of our final grades came from the “project” part(even lower in some subjects). The rest of our grades was still pretty much dependent on our theoretical papers. At that moment, I felt betrayed. The whole concept of “project-based” learning looked lost to me and I felt as though the whole idea was just a farce played on a set of unsuspecting undergraduates.
Thankfully, I WAS WRONG! The “Project-Based” learning initiative is probably amongst the best any institution has to offer. And the 40-50% that was still grounded in theory acts as the perfect abutment to PBL(project-based learning). In this post, my attempt is to bring about a change in the way academic projects are perceived by students and if possible, provide a new sense of direction to work on your academic projects in the future.
NOTE : While my CSE background causes me to write this article from the perspective of a CSE student, I am certain that the article has something to offer for any student who wishes to learn from his or her academic projects
What is project-based learning?
According to Thomas Markham (2011), “PBL integrates knowing and doing. Students learn knowledge and elements of the core curriculum, but also apply what they know to solve authentic problems and produce results that matter. PBL students take advantage of digital tools to produce high quality, collaborative products. PBL refocuses education on the student, not the curriculum—a shift mandated by the global world, which rewards intangible assets such as drive, passion, creativity, empathy, and resiliency. These cannot be taught out of a textbook, but must be activated through experience.” Source : Wikipedia
The above definition is by far one of the greatest summaries of what PBL is at its core. For the sake of brevity, PBL can be compressed in one fundamental phrase :
“Learning By Doing”
Working on a project allows students to :
- Understand a problem in the real world
- Apply a theoretical concept in practice
- Discuss with peers on the efficacy of proposed solutions
- Organize ideas and project them through implementation
- Sharpen communication skills
Often, not much of this happens in most cases of academic projects and that’s a reason why we feel that PBL is not as effective as it sounds. The problem is not in the idea or the method, rather it is we who misunderstand the whole purpose of academic projects.
Wait, do I actually misunderstand the purpose of projects at college?
Well, you are reading this because you do. In fact, almost everybody in a class does. It does not matter whether you spend your sessions in the front of the class or at the back benches. It has nothing to do with your grades either. And it definitely has nothing to do with the colour of your institution’s ID tag.
Having stated that we all misunderstand the meaning of projects, its about time I back up my argument with some facts. So, I want you to go through the following questions and answer them in your head (yes/no).
- Have you ever been overly bothered with the part that the project will be evaluated?
- Have you ever procrastinated in working on a project till the last week before the deadline, or even a shorter timeframe?
- Have you ever submitted a project on the internet as your own without significant upgrades to the original?
- Have you ever submitted a project that contained code in any of the following conditions
- Without reviewing code efficiency
- Without necessary documentation or a “How-to-use” guide
- Without refactoring your code to make it more reproducible
- Have you ever submitted a project that required you to write a report in any of the following conditions
- By copying more than 30-40% of your report from the internet
- By picking up random results of the internet and passing it of as your own, because you were confident nobody would check the code
- By picking up random citations from the internet after finishing your report, just to fill up the “References” section
- Have you ever spend more time on presentation than working on the project itself, because you believed that “Presentation mattered more than the content”?
If your answers to at least 2 of these 6 questions are a “yes”, welcome to the club of those who have misunderstood the purpose of academic projects. If your answers are “yes” for more questions than 2, it’s okay. It does not make you a bad student, nobody will judge you. Hopefully, this article helps you improve on that.
The purpose of academic projects
What we see as 40-50% of our final grades, is in reality way more than that. It’s not just the grades that the projects help us in achieving. It’s the substantial amount of knowledge we gain from working on these projects that help us build our foundational base for our future careers.
- Academic projects offer us a platform to put to use our theoretical learnings in practice
- Projects help to focus more on the “problem” and figure out “more efficient” ways to solve it
- Projects promote out-of-the-box thinking, and helps us replace all parochial, conventional understanding of existing solutions to a problem with more unconventional, yet effective alternatives
- It is through projects that we learn a great deal about collaborations in the academic space - Collaborative work is important as it allows different opinions on a given topic and finally leads to an output that is devoid of individual bias
Most importantly, projects help individuals seek out the ability in themselves to be self-reliant to a large extent - Every project requires us to conduct research on existing work, setup a methodology, write code, write reports, present etc.
Each part of a project helps us know a little more about an aspect we didn’t know much about before.
Common hindrances to learning from projects
The toughest part in correcting our mistakes is to acknowledge it. And to acknowledge a mistake, one must be conscious about it.
In this section, I list out a few of the most common mistakes we all make as students at college when we work on our academic projects. This list is not exhaustive by any means, so feel free to add in more in the comments section!
Choosing a very common topic: Choosing a very common topic like analysing the titanic dataset or the iris dataset(and not bringing out a better insight than what’s already done by others across the world) squanders terrific opportunity to work on a project that is unique and valuable. Such valuable projects that have not caught the eye of the majority of the world will ideally be a better choice to be more visible in the crowd of thousands of other students across the globe.
Choosing a very ambitious topic: If your head thinks of an idea that sounds absolutely amazing and feels like the next greatest invention in the world, then it is probably your head playing tricks on you. It’s always good to have ideas, but what is often difficult for undergraduate students is to differentiate between rational ideas that can work and overambitious dreams of conjuring a unicorn from thin air. Therefore, its important that our choices of a project are measured using realistic scales.
Following the hype and not the problem: I don’t mean to sound offensive, but it seems like almost everybody is working on a problem because they want to use data science. Data science is a wonderful field, but if we are going to let ourselves be driven by the hype around the field, the chances of learning and maximising our potential are slim. The longer we dwell on the technology or the tools we use than the problem itself, the more limited is our solution.
Picking code from the internet : Copying code from the internet and submitting it as your own might have it’s own set of ethical issues. But, often students skittle around these as most of us believe that, “It’s not a crime. So, why care?”. The folly in that thought is out of this article’s scope. However, by copying code, all we usually get is a temporary fix and a lot of missed opportunity to enhance skills.
Last minute rush to finish: Beginning work on any academic project in the day before submission(or any time period that is still not enough to complete the project in your best possible way) is not an efficient way to learn. You might finish it and pick up a grade, but it was never your best work.
Frowning on documentation: Documenting academic projects and maintaining a record of the steps undertaken is probably the most overlooked aspect of any project. This is also the cause why a lot of us are unable to explain our projects well to others, even though we have done some real good work. Not having documentation as a practice also causes you trouble when you have to prepare the project report as you do not have much memory of all the steps you undertook.
Being bad team players: There are no perfect team members. There are only team members who complement each other’s weaknesses and learn effectively together as a cohort. Unfortunately, this is one of the toughest ideas to understand for us. There can be several reasons why we become bad team players
- We feel our teammates don’t know enough and tend to look down upon them.
- We are unable to put the foot down when we see a non-working team. Because, at the end of the day they are your friends or peers. You choose to have a bad final product than bad blood.
- You feel nobody can keep up with you and you work too fast. You overburden yourself with work and finally end up making a huge mess of it.
- Of course, the blame game is not the right thing to do here. The smarter alternative would be to be choose your team such that it lets you work and serve the problem you are trying to solve.
While the above points are my observations, it is totally understandable if some of these might not appeal to my reader. In such a case of conflict, it would be great to have further discussion in the comments section.
The main course - How to “learn” from projects?
After 4 years of undergraduate study in a discipline where the depth of your knowledge is measured with the quality of your projects, I guess I finally have been able to find the right directions to navigate through the tricky path of learning from academic projects. While it seems trivial, learning from academic projects is a different ball game. While the previous section highlights the hindrances to learning, this section discusses about the solutions.
The following points summarize these tips that have seemed to work for me. Hope these help your cause.
Don’t be too worried or burdened by the marks these projects carry: Think of marks as a bonus to what you do. The real idea of incorporating projects into the curriculum is to provide students a chance to self-acquire skills that can’t be covered within the confines of an academic semester.
Choose the right team: If it is in your control to choose your team mates, build a team that can work together. Choosing our closest acquaintances onto our team is a mistake we all do. A team must ideally not be built on who is friends with whom, rather it is to be based on who can contribute effectively with whom.
Focus on the problem: We learn more when we have a goal in place. In a project, our goal is the problem we wish to solve. So, undivided focus on this is can do wonders.
Plan in advance: Do not wait for the last moment to start your project. Be pro-active and make a plan to work on it the moment you are informed about it. While there are several ways to plan successfully, I am not sure which one will work for you. So, I will leave you to decide on that!
Setting up a structure for your projects: An organized structure of your project will facilitate in easy understanding of the work you have done, which can prove beneficial to both you and your project reader. If you are working on data science projects, one template that could help you is Cookiecutter Data Science.
Maintaining a lab notebook: A rough book to scribble in all your experiments, results, questions and interactions w.r.t the project will help with knowing what to write in the final report when you prepare it.
Break your solution before anybody else: Every solution is flawed. Every. So, always know the pitfalls of your work and the assumptions you have made. In this way, you are indicating to your evaluator or employer or critic that you are aware of your project.
Keep an open mind: Be open to feedback. There are always multiple sides to every argument made.
Review your progress with peers: Discuss your work, if it is not too confidential. An external perspective will help improve your work.
Make google your go to source, but don’t be over-reliant: Do not rely on the internet for the simplest code snippet. The internet must not be what adds value to you, you should be what makes you valuable.
Report your results with all honesty: If your project has hit a bottleneck or failed, don’t hide it. Report your issues and diagnose the problems that you faced. If people know where you failed, they have a much better chance of helping you out with it. If you hide these “not-so-good” results, it will not be of any help.
Copying code is not entirely wrong: Picking up another’s code is not wrong as long as you are not picking up everything. It is always encouraged to use what others have written to build and improve on those to create your projects. However, if you are going to pick up entire programs and pass them off as your own, then that’s just plain stupid.
Don’t look down upon other projects: There are no “better” projects. Every project stands on its own. It could be your simple data analysis with the iris dataset or it could be a whole new deep learning framework, but both require equal respect. Not everybody has the same resources and abilities, so be respectful of others’ work.
In the contemporary world, an educational degree is the most important yardstick with which they measure people in a lot of aspects. However, the irony lies in the fact that academic projects that are a part of the journey to get these degrees are severely undervalued. Often, potential employers want to know “what you did other than academic projects”. If you write about a project done during the course of your degree, nobody is impressed. Why? Because we do boring and uninspiring work. We treat our academic projects as “small endeavours” that are just worth a few marks. We complain about how we don’t have time to do our projects in better fashion when we use up all that time on things that don’t really matter at the end. Well, some of us might work very hard on certain projects but honestly, nobody would care unless our hard work transforms into value for them. Therefore, the only thing holding us back from learning from and creating amazing projects is our own mind. We need to improve on this.
A well-planned, well-structured project helps you learn new concepts with greater ease than doing a course on it. Moreover, a well-written project shows your readers that you care. And in an increasingly selfish world, being able to care for others’ comfort definitely will put you above a lot of your competition.