At the end of the school year, I asked my Advanced Studies students (the ones doing all of the open-ended, independent research and learning projects that you have glimpsed) to offer advice to other students doing the same for the first time. Perhaps you have students contracting to do independent projects during your content area class, or perhaps you are an elementary teacher who has (often advanced) students with extra time or proof of mastery pursue a topic within your classroom, or perhaps you are incorporating project-based learning with some or all of your students. Below are the pearls of wisdom that my students wanted to pass on to other learners "in the same boat." While some of their advice is more specific to learners whose teacher has given them a blank slate to pursue a project (as I do for them), others of their gems of advice will also apply for students in a content-based or other large project situation.
As you will notice, some of them learned some of these lessons the hard way. While I do try to guide them away from disaster, I also believe the lesson is more powerfully learned when they learn it for themselves, even if it is learned the hard way. I walk a balance beam with them of troubleshooting problems and issues, but also allowing them to discover and work through obstacles and issues on their own. Once they've been through the process once, they are remarkably more self-reliant, responsible, and self-disciplined each successive time they pursue the process of an independent or large project. I drop them in, but I also don't let them drown.
ADVICE: From Kids, For Kids - about independent learning projects
General Advice for First-Timers
"When you pick your project, choose something that will keep you interested throughout the whole semester/year. If you have something that is only interesting in the beginning, you'll quickly get bored. You have to be able to commit."
"I would suggest that you pursue the thing that most interests you. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise."
"Don't slack off, but don't freak out too much, either. You have to give yourself as much time as possible."
"Don't do something you won't finish. These projects are hard. Don't relax too much!"
"Use your time wisely. It's always better to be done early than late. If possible, use time out of class. If you rush something, you may not get as high quality a result as you want."
"Make sure you have steps planned out."
"Choose your project wisely. Pick something that won't be overwhelmingly hard, but will still challenge you."
"You should definitely choose something that you are EXTREMELY interested in. If you are only slightly interested, you'll get bored."
"This is not like any other class where the teacher tells you exactly what to do and how to do it. You have to be much more self-reliant."
What did you learn the hard way? What do you wish you had known before you began your first project?
"Be organized and have everything saved in more than one place! Anything can happen. Be prepared! Re-doing anything you've worked on is time consuming and not fun."
"I learned that you have to put time away to work on your project at home. Even though the teacher doesn't make you do project homework, you should."
"I wish I'd known that even though a semester, or 4½ months, sounds like a lot of time, it really isn't!"
"Don't be over-ambitious, but don't underestimate yourself, either. You have to have a goal to pursue."
"Any project you choose will be harder than you first think."
"DON'T procrastinate! If you procrastinate, all of your final steps get pushed to the end and it's a lot to comprehend and wrap up. Get started as early as you can, and stay focused."
"I wish I had known more about the tools and resources I was using for my project. Sometimes you have to do 'pre-research.'"
"I learned that I need to get things done early so I will have time for polishing and formatting the final product. This often isn't necessary in other classes, but it definitely is necessary for your independent learning project."
"DON'T SCREW AROUND!!!"
"This requires a lot of out of classroom time, so you have to be really devoted."
"I learned the hard way that an independent learning project doesn't just happen overnight. It is an ongoing process."
What do students doing independent learning projects have to look forward to?
"You gain this amazing sense of accomplishment and independence. It makes you so much more self-confident."
"You will learn to have faith in yourself and to do something independently."
"You can look forward to having more freedom with your project than you've probably ever had or ever will."
"You will gain self-confidence through completing a large project."
"You're going to learn valuable work ethic skills and gain experience you might otherwise not learn until later in life (with perhaps more severe consequences then)."
"You learn more about yourself by doing your own thing."
"I'd say a major thing to look forward to it just being able to really have an opportunity to learn about something you really enjoy doing."
"It's not going to be easy; things will go wrong. Everything will seem as if it is against you. But it isn't. You will make it! It might be hard, but you can do it. Hang in there!"
"Just remember: 'Any man can move a mountain, but only some will...' Hard work pays off if you stay concentrated and focused."
"Don't give up on yourself. Anything you put your mind to will work. Stay strong and it's totally worth it."
"If you don't succeed the first time, try again. I did much better the second time."
"The world is your oyster! Be sure to take that into consideration."
"Sometimes it's hard to get things going as fast as you'd like. Don't worry about it! Just try your best and get through it in your own way."
"Don't be afraid to try! You have a chance to make/create/learn something you will be proud of, so go for it!"
"It may seem overwhelming to start, but once you get started, it gets easier. When the going gets tough, you should persevere and don't give up."
"You should be aware that it isn't a class to goof off. This is a great opportunity. Don't pass it up!"
"If you aren't having fun with your project, it's the wrong project. This is supposed to be fun, too!"
"Be careful with your funds & equipment. If you break your equipment and you're out of funds, well too bad for you."
"This project should be based on one thing, then later on if you complete that objective, you can expand on it. But first get done what you started."
"For your project, choose something you feel confident doing but also something that you would like to learn more about and be challenged by."
"You should have a motive for doing your project, even if it's as simple as, 'I just want to try it.' You should enjoy doing your project."
"The possibilities are literally endless..."
If you would like a printer-friendly version of their advice to share with your own students, just click Advice From Kids For Kids.doc.
What additional advice would you (or your students) offer students pursuing independent research and learning projects?