Motivating the Work of the Project

I am wrestling with homework.  Am I giving the right amount?  When I give it, are they motivated to get it done?   Should I assign hw one day, then collect the next, or should I give larger assignments that are due later?
As a former trainer of teachers about PBL, in a multi-day training, I would often have teachers go through an example project, and I would purposefully give the teachers more work than they could get done during the day.  Predictably, they would give each other homework, so that they could be ready for the next day.  I could then point out the fact that I didn’t have to assign homework; they would see what they had to do, and they knew that they couldn’t get it done in class, so they did homework spontaneously.  The next move is clear, right?   Suggest to the teachers that their students will do the same thing, once they are used to PBL.   Great theory, right?
With our students this year, not so much.   In the last project, we had a flurry of work at the end, but we still have some students who were telling us that they don’t really feel a sense of urgency at the beginning of the project, and so they are not really doing robust work outside of class.
So with this most recent project, we wanted to help create that urgency they seemed to lack previously.  Like the previous project, we started off by not putting students into groups, so that they could get some individual research done, and bring some work and accomplishment about the project to potential group members.    But once they get into groups, I’ve noticed that some kids start to relax a little, perhaps because they have someone to rely upon other than themselves, and the likelihood of work outside of class decreases.
Once they get into groups, I have a major lever in creating urgency: the grade.   I can beat the kids over the head with threats about their grade, and give them many high-stakes assignments that must be done at home, or they’ll fail.   Take that, punks!
The problem is, that lever rarely works.  Even in the rare occasions that it does work, it tends to create dependent students, who are driven by extrinsic motivation, and the mere prospect of having to be the (constant) external motivator for the kids is exhausting.   Not all of us have the same panache as Matt Foley, after all.  And honestly, threats to grades just don’t feel respectful.
Those were the thoughts swirling around when I started to wonder:  is there any study out there that quantifies how much people tend to underestimate the time required to do the work at the outset of a big project?  Why, yes there is!   
That inspired this ppt (pay most attention to slides 5-10) that we used to set the students on a course to define their work calendar for the current project.   My thinking:  give the students the reality of what they face, and let them decide the level of work they should engage in.   Don’t just give them autonomy (a la Dan Pink’s Drive)…give them informed autonomy to really foster a more intrinsic motivation.   The initial result?  The intense work that followed the ppt, as they created their calendars, was, well, intense.   Students actually broke the work down by hours that they intended to spend on the project.
The next day, with some level of eagerness, I had them take a poll about how much homework they had done the night before, and was it more or less than usual?   Answer: statistically less.    Arg!  
However, that day was a work day, so we debriefed at the end of the class period, and I asked, “Tell me what you learned today”    Interestingly, most of the responses were not about content, but about process.   I’ll end this blog entry with a couple of delicious samples:
“In the last project, I wasn’t sure what to do, but this time, we were very careful in our calendar, and what each person had to do, so I feel much more focused.”
“I have been resisting the group contract and management log, but this time, I see that it can really make us work much better.”


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