LEGO FSEM redux

Last year I developed and taught a new LEGO-themed freshman seminar. Turns out I’ll be teaching it again this coming fall, so I have added motivation to take a critical look at successes and failures of my new course.

While I don’t want to dwell on failures, fact is I made a big gamble in this course and I don’t think it paid off. I did realize, even then, that my new approach could fail.

Me: So for all I know it will be a spectacular disaster. (May ’15)

Diagram showing linear vs sandbox model
A recap of how sandboxing works…

Luckily, it wasn’t quite that bad, but I wouldn’t call it an unmitigated success, either.

My big gamble was to structure the course as a sandbox instead of the usual linear format. I thought this would allow for added creativity and experimentation. I wasn’t wrong about that: students in the FSEM produced some varied, creative projects. Problem is, after testing this for a semester, I think freshmen are not the best audience for this format. Upperclassmen would probably relish the chance to creat their own assignments. However, I found that the frosh were overwhelmed by the choices. Some rose to the occasion, but even the best among them had a dud among their four required projects.

Certainly, a tough assignment or two isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, frosh are a special case: I think assignments that are too open-ended for that audience can end up being discouraging. My limited empirical data back up this hunch. Most of my students really struggled to find topics for their assignments, and those that weren’t very creative ended up in a rut. With 56 projects to shepherd to completion, I just didn’t have the mental capacity to help students push themselves into more adventurous work. So the end result was some wonderful creations, but also lots of middling work that satisfied the requirements but was not at all inspired or inspiring. Examples of student projects are below, shown without comment. Make up your own mind about which ones are neat, and which ones aren’t.

Reassessing my thoughts back in May, I think I was realistic with my concerns and focus on making this work. I knew the workload had to be distributed differently than with a linear set of assignments. I knew I would need to very, very carefully build the assignments to be equivalent to each other and well-defined. Did I succeed? Uh…Kinda?

In terms of scheduling: yes, I think I did it “right”. But I still don’t think it worked. The sandbox type assumes equal weight on equal assignments, but realistically students need much more time and direction at the beginning of the semester. By the end, they know what they’re doing, especially in this case since all four assignments mostly include the same components. End result: the beginning of the semester felt rushed, and by the end I think I could have used the time on things other than assignments.

In terms of the sandbox-type itself: again, I think I did ok, but again, I don’t think it worked. I tried to work out the assignment types very carefully, and for each one, I asked students to go over their idea with me. In some cases I encouraged them to be more adventurous, in others I encouraged them to scale back. A few chose to work in teams, which was an added wrinkle but mostly went ok. Still, I’m not satisfied with the way it turned out. Four creative projects per student is simply too much, resulting in some coasting or just poorly thought-out ideas going forward. Put simply: a linear approach would have allowed them to hone in on their good idea and leave the others behind.

It’s a little discouraging to realize my gamble didn’t pay off, but that’s how it goes. At least now I know what sandboxing really entails, and I can feel secure in implementing the linear model instead, at least in this course. I’ve learned a lot in this process, and my students still got a good experience, so it doesn’t sting too badly.

Now I need to rebuild the course again. As any planner about to rebuild a city can tell you, that’s a bit daunting, but inspiring too.

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