When students in Jana Grekul’s 400-level Sociology of Punishment course received their syllabus at the start of the term, they made an unusual discovery: there were no assigned readings, no textbooks and no exams.
Instead, they would be embarking on three months of “project based learning” – an approach Grekul was inspired to pursue as part of her work as director of the Arts Pedagogy Research and Innovation Laboratory (APRIL).
Established in 2013, APRIL supports instructors who are interested in creative teaching and learning. Its research is currently focused on two areas: blended learning, which combines face-to-face classes with elements of online learning, and project based learning, which is a form of experiential learning, or “learning by doing.”
The initial reaction from students to the course being structured entirely around group projects was mixed. “The first day of class was sheer anxiety in the classroom,” recalls Grekul, who, in addition to her role with APRIL, is an associate professor of sociology and director of the criminology program.
“I was nervous,” admits Molly Murray, a third-year criminology major. “[Group work] can be good or bad, depending on who gets placed in your group, and you really have no way of knowing until you’ve actually started the project.”
But others, like fourth-year sociology major Lindsay Jessup, immediately welcomed the change of pace. “It was a huge relief – you’re used to having so many classes where on the first day you have your calendar out and you’re writing down midterm after midterm after midterm. To find out that there weren’t any actual exams, just projects, was really exciting,” she says.
Grekul split the class of 28 students into seven groups and assigned each group a specific topic to explore. The topics all related to the overall theme of the course, which was to examine the consequences of the Canadian government’s “get tough on crime” legislation, Bill C-10.
Each group was tasked with creating both an academic lecture and a final project aimed at a non-academic audience. The students were empowered to direct their own research and devise creative ways to present what they’d learned to the class.
The final projects included everything from versions of Family Feud and the Game of Life that addressed the ways in which mental health and social class affect the way people are treated in the criminal justice system, to a children’s book intended to help kids deal with the challenges of having a mother or father in jail.
Despite the entertaining format of many of the projects, the students are quick to explain that their experience went far beyond fun and games.
“I found that we did the same amount of research, or perhaps even more, than if we were doing a research paper,” says third-year criminology major Corey Li, who was part of the group that built the Game of Life board game. “But we really had to come up with an interesting way to integrate it into a project that wasn’t all about writing eloquently and being convincing. There were so many other factors that came into it.”
“Honestly, I’m going to remember this a lot more than any paper I’ve ever handed in,” adds Jessup, whose group created the Family Feud game.
Grekul explains that the goal of project based learning is to help students develop skills they can carry with them into the workplace. “Working in a group, you learn communication skills, you learn how to be a team player, you learn how to solve problems together and to deal with conflict. These are all attributes they’re going to need someday.”
The students discovered other benefits as well. “As far as my university experience goes, the first couple of years were an isolating time – I felt anonymous,” says Murray. “Then in this class, having group work where you take a stake in people in your class and you’re concerned about how what you produce affects everyone else, that made me work harder.”
Now that the class is over, Grekul will work with APRIL’s research coordinator, Laura Servage, to evaluate the results and compile a report that will be available through the website. They will also be holding regular meetings for instructors who are interested in pursuing this type of learning in their classrooms.
Grekul gives full credit to APRIL for guiding her through her first project based course every step of the way, and she hopes her colleagues will take advantage of the research and support it has to offer. And based on their experience this term, her students hope more teachers will adopt innovative techniques as well.
“The whole class really brings a new perspective into teaching for professors, and for us students, a whole new concept of learning,” says Li. “I think that’s a really valuable addition to have within the university, and in education in general.”
For more information about APRIL’s project based learning group for instructors, email firstname.lastname@example.org.