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5 Tips for Creative Student Projects

Enhance learning in your classroom with engaging and creative project assignments.

Michelle Norman | May 17, 2016

Tired of reading student essays? Do your students' projects seem to lack creativity? Do you wish for better-quality projects? What if I told you you can have it all? That there is a way to achieve creative and assessment-worthy student projects? Yes, it's possible, thanks to the arts! 

"But wait -- I'm not an art or a music teacher," you may say. That's OK -- neither am I. What we are, however, are smart go-getters who love exploration and making the learning experience awesome. So, trust me: With a little background knowledge and some great apps, you and your students will be on the path to creating projects that are creative, that mimic real-world products, and that reflect student learning.

Step 1: Evaluate current assignments.

We all have our standard assignments: the essay, the poster, the book sleeve, the presentation. Let's be honest: We continue to assign these things because it's easy and students understand the expectations. But, other than assessing content knowledge, what are these assignments doing? Are they showing analysis, synthesis, and application? 

Don't throw these assignments away! Instead, evaluate them for what works and keep those pieces. Ask yourself five tough questions:

  1. Does this assignment assess the material taught?
  2. Are there more skills that could be added (increasing the rigor of the assignment)?
  3. Is the assignment clearly structured, or are some aspects implied?
  4. Are there aspects of the assignment that half of students always miss? If so, do students miss points because you're assessing something that wasn't directly stated?
  5. Would you want to complete this assignment?
Step 2: Visit the real world.

The next time you're out driving, shopping, or doing other everyday tasks, be aware of all the ways your content is represented in consumer products and services. For example, if your students are learning to weigh, measure, or convert, consider having them measure ingredients in a product and create a fictitious nutrition label -- the project requires students to perform and apply skills, ties the skill to the real world, and provides opportunities to be creative (design and layout). Other projects may include a "show and tell" segment in the style of a TV talk show. 

Step 3: Build base knowledge in the arts.

A little bit of knowledge goes a long way in the arts. Start by exploring the basics of performance arts (radio, theater, dance, music) and visual arts (painting, drawing, sculpting, photography). Although it seems like a lot to learn, great websites and apps are out there to help anyone build a working knowledge of basic artistic properties. Here are a few examples:

Google Art Project (Editor's Note: This product is no longer available.): Trying to narrow down art is an exhausting process, but the Google Art Project makes searching for a specific medium or artist very easy. You can even search specific museum collections, although I suggest that such a broad search be avoided -- unless, of course, you know you're interested in, say, the American Ballet Theatre. 

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: This Web resource is provided by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's an important resource when considering how art evolves based both in time and geography. In addition to the available time line, essays, and artist works, the website also describes key historical events to demonstrate the link between those events/cultural beliefs and the art being created.

ArtsEdge: ArtsEdge provides a fantastic collection of arts-inspired lesson plans for all grade levels and includes theater, music, dance, and visual, literary, and media arts. This website makes it very easy to start exploring and implementing arts programming into your curriculum.

Step 4: Recreate assignments using the arts. 

Now that you've explored the world of performance and visual art, you've evaluated assignments for rigor, and you have a good idea of how content is applied in consumer goods and services, it's time to reenvision student projects … and make them awesome! 

  • Determine which art skills should be used to create the new project. Will students photograph, record, lay out, draw, sculpt, or act?
  • Take one lesson period to teach students how to use skills, apps, or websites. For example, if a project will require students to draw or photograph, teach about the rule of thirds and composition. Likewise, if the project will require students to record, present a mini-lesson on speech skills and demonstrate how to use any required technology.
  • Create specific guidelines and clear expectations for student-produced projects. Always provide an example of a successful project -- remember, a more creative approach to student-produced work may be new to your students, and they may need extra support to make great projects.
Step 5: Step back and allow students to create!

The best projects have clear expectations and few interventions from the teacher. This isn't to say you can't or shouldn't provide assistance to struggling students, but remember that the goal of any project is to assess what students know and to provide a new learning experience. Giving them free creative rein will help them fully connect with the material and allow them to create something they can be proud of.