From interviews with students and teachers about the learning activities they remember as being particularly enjoyable, the author has discovered that these activities share many common characteristics, which can be grouped into three categories: assignments that matter, activities that involve the researcher, and assessments that help by promoting growth and showing care.

Assignments that matter:

  1. Have clarity of purpose and expectations. This assures students that they are undertaking projects worth doing, not just busy work.
  2. Give students choices. If the purpose of the assignment is to teach the scientific method, it doesn’t matter what the topic is. Dig down and look at the core concepts you are trying to teach through research assignments, and let the students pick a specific subject that interests them.
  3. Are relevant to the student’s life. Too often, we ask our students to research important topics—environmental issues, historical issues, health issues—but fail to help them make the vital connection as to why the findings are important to the people in the town in which they live.
  4. Stress higher-level thinking skills and creativity. Think how different the results of a science project are from a paper that simply asks an “about” question. Instead of asking students to write a research paper about ice, for example, have them brainstorm an original theory, design a means of testing it, and find ways to effectively communicate their findings.
  5. Answer real questions. Unfortunately, teachers rarely ask questions of their students to which they do not already know the answers: diminishing to the student, boring for the teacher.

Activities that involve the researcher:

  1. Involve a variety of information-finding activities. Students should talk to experts, conduct surveys, design experiments, or look at other kinds of primary sources to get precise information, in addition to consulting traditional sources such as reference books.
  2. Tend to be hands-on. Students learned by doing, not just by listening.
  3. Incorporate the use of technology. Whether for planning, for research, or for communication, many students find the use of technology motivating. Good productivity tools such as graphic programs, desktop publishers, and web page construction kits are the virtual equivalent of a set of Legos.
  4. Often use formats that employ multiple senses. Ask students to communicate their findings not only with words, but through sound and sight as well. Scanned artifacts such as ration coupons, medals, and old photographs stimulate those students who might not be verbal learners, for example.
  5. Are often complex, but can be broken into manageable steps. Large projects can be overwhelming, even for adults, but planning smaller steps, building timelines, creating frequent deadlines, and scheduling multiple conferences turn complexity into manageability.
  6. Involve collaborative learning. Not every project needs to be a joint effort, but real-world work environments increasingly stress teamwork. Teamwork in school is not only more enjoyable, but develops practical interpersonal skills as well.

Assessments that help by promoting growth and showing care:

  1. Have results that are shared with people who care and respond. Kids get hooked when adults take the time to really look at the work they have done and comment on it.
  2. Are more meaningful than paper-and-pencil tests. Quality indicators such as rubrics and checklists that are given to students when an assignment is made can help guide learning and keep guesswork to a minimum. These rubrics more closely resemble the criteria used in assessing a person’s performance in the real world.
  3. Provide examples that give the learner a clear idea of what quality work looks like. Assignments need to change enough from year to year so that copying is not possible.
  4. Allow students to reflect on, revisit, revise, and improve their final projects. Good projects, like gardens, musical repertoires, and relationships, are probably always works in progress.

To illustrate these concepts, the author includes two examples: a science fair project that sought to determine what substance, when applied to ice, would melt it the fastest; and a history lesson that examined the impact of World War II by having teams of eighth grade students interview volunteers from the community about what impact the war had on them, either as military personnel or as civilians.

Students then wrote a narrative, took digital photographs, and scanned memorabilia from the time; looked for web-based references to the topics and terms they heard about; and used all this information to create web pages that allowed them to share what they learned about their neighbors (http://www.isd77.k12.mn.us/ schools/dakota/war/worldwar.html).