Laura Gibbs

Choice, Randomness, and Scaffolding for Student Projects

Blog Post created by Laura Gibbs on Jul 26, 2017

Thanks to the fabulous people tweeting for #InstCon (some of whom I know from the Community; I'm looking at you Linda J. Lee), I am really enjoying the event... but also sad to be missing out on so much great stuff: between Jewel last night and Sheena Iyengar this morning, I have to say WOW: what a beautiful line-up, and the conference is just barely getting started!


As it happens, the task I was working on this morning resonated perfectly with Iyengar's talk about choice and growth (there was no live stream, but lots of tweets; I hope the video will go up later), so I thought I would explain some of my strategies for the tricky job of introducing students to new things while at the same time making the options feel fun instead of overwhelming. As someone who teaches Humanities Gen. Ed. courses to students who are mostly not Humanities majors, I really want to introduce them to the wealth of stories and artwork that is available to them online (just a click away), but I also want to make sure they feel comfortable and confident as they navigate that space.


So, for example, their class project: on the one hand, I think it's great if students want to choose something familiar and deepen their knowledge about it (lots of students arrive to my Myth class with an interest in Greek mythology), but I also think it is great if they are willing to take a leap of faith and choose a class project on a topic that is totally new to them. That is asking a lot of the students, of course... and a majority of students are going to go with something that is at least somewhat familiar, which is okay — but I still want to make sure I have tried to suggest to them a lot of different, unusual topics they could choose, and to present those choices in a way that is encouraging.


You can see some of the strategies at work in a new set of blog posts I have created for students this semester in the Myth class: Project Ideas. What I've done here in the past few days is to consolidate what were several different lists (lists of topics, lists of past student projects, lists of online books, lists of other online resources), so that the relevant materials for each project are idea are now in one single blog post. I stopped when I had around 100 posts because I need to go do the same thing for my India class, but hopefully I will have time to add some more to this list before the students start exploring here next month. One thing I really like about this approach is that it is easy to add a new item to the list, prompted either by a past student project or by a really good online resource that I want to highlight.


Here's a typical post: Weather Gods. Screenshot:


weather gods screenshot


I'm trying to keep these posts short; they are meant to be a jumping off point for future research. The idea is that in Week 1 students browse a gallery of past projects just to get a general idea of what it means to do a project; then in Week 2, they will use the gallery plus this Project Ideas list to identify four or five topics of potential interest, sharing with me the reason(s) why they picked each one so I can write them back with some specific suggestions about online resources, and then in Week 3 they zoom in on one particular topic of greatest interest and spend an hour or so doing real research on that topic, using the information in the relevant blog post along with the feedback I sent them in the previous week. Then they make the biggest choice of all: do they want to do a Storybook project based on a topic of their choosing, or do they want to do a Portfolio instead. That choice is about 50-50... although I am hoping that with this new, integrated approach to brainstorming Storybook topics, I will get more people choosing the Storybooks. I guess that will be one of my metrics for success in this new semester. I am curious to see what happens!


And obvious the trick is just how to surface the different possibilities since a list of 100+ topics is very tedious to read through. To overcome the list tedium here and elsewhere (my classes involve choice in every assignment), I use RANDOMIZERS. So for this Project Ideas Index, I created a link randomizer so that there is a random idea that pops up at the top of the Index every time. That takes literally just a few minutes to do; creating randomizers with images is more time-consuming, but creating text randomizers is super-easy (I use the free tool at for all my randomizers... it's a tool built by a genius former student over 10 years ago, and it's still going strong.) Here's a screenshot of how that looks; you can click and see what comes up at random for you:


idea randomizer screenshot


The idea is to have those ideas pop up random so that before a student even starts browsing the list, they are presented with something unexpected, and perhaps some of interest that they will want to include in their explorations.


Then, down at the bottom of the page, I have another randomizer, one that pulls a free online book from our online book library, Freebookapalooza; here's how that looks... and there are more randomizers in the blog sidebar. This blog is actually the "textbook" for the Myth class, so students spend a lot of time here, which means I get a lot of opportunities to present them with intriguing books and stories at random.


random free book screenshot


Creating the randomizers with the images takes more time, and over this past winter break I made a LOT of those; you can find them all at my Widget Warehouse, and I've configured them to work in Canvas too. :-)

Laura's Widget Warehouse: Homepage


So, I am really pleased with how this consolidation effort has gone for the Myth projects list, and in the next few days I will be doing the same for the projects in the Indian Epics class. In that class, the scaffolding and exploration is even more challenging since most students arrive in that class with zero starting knowledge in the Indian Epics, and even zero interest; they are often just in the class because it is the only upper-division Non-Western Humanities General Education course that fits their schedule. But hey, that's okay: it is actually my great honor to be able to introduce them to a whole world of stories from India that they did not know about before.


Alright, back to work: but I will report back on how this new approach to project browsing-and-choosing goes this semester, and if anybody wants to brainstorm ideas for the challenge of exposing students to new things without overwhelming them with choice, please chime in here! 


And THANK YOU again to all the tweeters from #InstCon. It was really cool how the project I was working on this morning resonated so nicely with the keynote on choice and growth that got the day started in Keystone!