Making Math Projects Worth the Time

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My fourth graders are in the midst of math project. They’ve been studying measurement and are completing a project involving creating nets, assembling them and finding the volume.

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I’ve used this task in years past and students spend a decent amount of time planning and putting together their rectangular prism cities.  It’s generally one of the “favorite” activities of the year as indicated by student surveys that I give in June.  The engagement is great and students are proud of what they create at the end.  Now to the challenging –  It takes an LARGE amount of time to complete these types of projects.  Students have the potential to lose focus and stray from the concept/objective.  I’m certainly not a pro with math projects, but I’ve found certain things work, while others don’t.  The bullet list below could apply to other long-term (>3 class sessions) projects beyond math. I’m tackling the points below before I plan out a fifth grade project that’s scheduled to take place in April.

  • Clearly define directions, expectations and criteria
    • I spend a good 15-20 minutes explaining the project and directions with the students.  During this time I’ll answer students’ questions and elaborate on the criteria for success.  I tend to also reinforce the expectations of how teams should work together (because all teams works great, right??) and what goals they’ll accomplish by the end of the project
  • Objectives … Objectives … Objectives
    • I remind the students of the objectives and skills that the project will be addressing.  The projects are fun and engaging for the students, but I want to ensure that they understand the reasoning behind the project.  Teachers understand why the project is happening, but it’s also good to have a list available when an admin stops by your room and students look like they’re creating something massive with paper, iPads, scissors, glue and other materials.  Also, the SMP‘s can play a huge role here.  I personally find it challenging to pinpoint exactly where the SMP’s become directly evident in lessons (it’s usually a vague “hey look we’re using attend to precision here” type of statements.  Math projects are full of the SMP’s and this aspect can be part of the objectives and emphasized in a self-reflection activity – see last bullet point.
  • Eliminate specific models/examples
    • This might irk some people, but I’m not a fan of showing examples of what their project should look like.  Providing really vague or general examples are okay in my book.  I tend to get questions asking if a certain aspect of the project could look like _____.  I tell students that if it follows the criteria it’s good to go. Ideally, I’d like students to work together and create something original, not copy what I show as the example.  This allows students an opportunity to focus on the criteria and not “what the teacher wants” type of mentality.
  • Create a timeline 
    • I find creating a timeline is one of most important pieces when introducing the project.  Adding in checkpoints along the way where teachers “check-in” on what’s happening gives students (and me) an added accountability piece to make sure we’re sticking to what’s expected.
  • Be flexible
    • Sometimes timelines need to be changed.  Assemblies, snow days, fire drills, (insert an event that impacts your instruction) happen.  Be upfront with the students that the time will need to be extended.  Most of my students give a sigh of relief when I tell them that they’ll have an extra period to work on the project – so do I as I want to make sure that they make a quality product.
  • Include self-reflection
    • Students need time to process the math that they’re using while completing a project.  I like to give students time to write down how they’re using the time that they’re given and what was accomplished during that session.  I find providing this time gives me an insight to how each group is progressing and also adds an emphasis on what skills are being addressed.  For math projects, I find that adding a reference to the SMPs can be an added bonus as most of them become apparent as students create their projects.
  • Sharing is caring
    • After everyone has finished I like to share the projects to people outside of our classroom community.  I might share a link out on Twitter and have the students submit their projects to SeeSaw.  Sharing with other classrooms in the district has an added bonus.  Plus, students are creating their projects for an authentic audience and they have the potential to receive feedback.  That adds another quality component in my mind.

I find that having these components in place before assigning a long-term project to be helpful.  It makes the project worth the time as students are more efficient during that time and the quality of what’s created tends to be better.