Challenge-based learning: reflections on the chariot project

I’m going to use this post to reflect on the surprises I faced while trying a new kind of teaching for me: challenge-based learning. This fall I used generous FDC funds from the Ferguson family to create a challenge-based learning project in my first-year seminar, Equus: The Horse in Western Culture. Students in the class collaborated on the research, design, construction, and (experimental) driving of a Bronze Age chariot. The many interdisciplinary and collaborative tasks required were intended to present a variety of opportunities to meet the normal learning outcomes for the class while also promoting engagement and retention.

By lots of measures, the project was a success. The class actually did complete and test a real chariot; the challenges they faced at every stage were instructive; their academic assignments were completely integrated with the project. Two specific measures suggest that the challenge project achieved its additional goal of promoting student engagement and academic persistence: attendance was higher by far in this class than in any other first-year seminar I’ve taught (97% vs. an average of 89%), and retention was also higher than average (100% so far). I was also pleasantly surprised by the excitement the project generated outside the class, in parents and community members.

On the other hand, the project was also my trial-by-fire introduction to the pedagogy of challenge-based and project-based learning. I learned a lot more about what needs to happen with these kinds of projects and how I can improve them in the future.

I knew the project would take a lot of time, both from the students and from me and my helpers, but I had not realized the full consequences of this time for the pedagogy of the class. As I foresaw, I had to do a lot of background work, trying out things, buying materials, and making sure that the whole project was on track. First-year seminars do typically demand more time than other classes, and we can all compensate by simply devoting more time out of our day, but there comes a point at which time spent on one task inevitably takes away from others. My normal response to any time crunch is to delay feedback on assignments, but in this case that meant that some of the assignments I had wanted to give got delayed or altered, and I was not able to scaffold each task so as to build toward increasing mastery. Also, because the whole class was invested in the project, I worried constantly about whether things were going to finish on time and to work out. Everything we were doing was completely new to all of us, so there was little to be relied on. When it came to anything beyond the lab sessions here at Albion, coordinating the schedules of the distant experts (our saddler and our driver) with multiple students was also difficult. These details tended to distract me from coordinating the pedagogy properly, but they are also a necessary part of any challenge that is as new to the instructor as to the students. As a result I think it’s important to build an extremely flexible system of assignments around a project.

Another thing that should not have surprised me but did were the serious limits to students’ ability to participate in the building itself. I had scheduled a separate “lab” time on Monday evenings, which made it possible to command the regular attention of students, but planning the labs was a distinct challenge. My expert helpers had begun with the safety rule that students should not use power tools; in fact we were challenged at every level of the project to find meaningful work that would engage all of the students throughout all of the labs. Inevitably, a handful of students would find themselves with not so much to do by the second half of the lab. A few students managed to occupy themselves simply by observing what was happening and doing what needed to be done by their team, but most needed more explicit instructions and encouragement. The further we got into the project the more I realized that half of all planning was not about what steps we needed to take next but how to make sure that all students had jobs at every stage. I made some attempts to include such project planning into the pedagogy of the class, but I quickly realized that teaching what design actually means and how to implement a project is itself a large content area and one I hadn’t made space for in the class. I also have some doubts about how much can be achieved along these lines by first-year students who are still getting to know each other and figuring out how to work at the college level. I’ve realized that I need to give much more pedagogical attention to the design and planning process, and I need to be much more explicit with students about what they are not achieving and how those gaps are being filled in by me and by the experts helping them. Even given the drawbacks with this type of learning, however, there are also significant benefits to students’ development as learners. Ideally students can begin to learn how to approach challenging projects (even those with goals that seem unachievable) and gain confidence in their own ability, something they don’t get when their experiences are all pre-planned. It was gratifying to watch my students’ incredulity and doubt turn into excitement as we accomplished what seemed impossible to them.

Finally, the project drew my attention to something I continually struggle with in teaching: the need to remind students of what they are learning both during and after the learning process. A project, especially one that involves inherently non-academic things like cutting, sanding, and sewing makes this need more acute. Fortunately, I had students who were comfortable enough to ask “Wait, what are we learning here?” giving me the chance to explain what seemed to me blindingly obvious, like the fact that the technical difficulties we encountered demonstrated that large scale chariot production would have required an enormous investment of human resources and technical knowledge and that the appearance of a particular technology, in this case derived from the domestication of the horse, can thus be both symptom and cause of larger social and civil developments. I also found myself explaining the way that the project helped develop their abilities in written and oral communication and collaboration. By the end of term I was able to do things such as having them discover that their chariot wheels exactly matched the gauge of the railroad running behind Olin: an opportunity for a discussion on the way that technological decisions can have long lasting consequences. In this case elements like the domestication of the horse, the need for at least two passengers in a vehicle (driver and warrior), and the design limits of wood and rawhide helped determine a “natural” size that persists in a technology that no longer has such limits or needs. Like experiential learning, project-based learning calls attention to the connection between the learning goals and the work students are doing. I learned not to neglect this connection. Ultimately we should be able to use it to let students reflect on their own learning process.

As is usual in teaching, a lot of the things I discovered in the course of this experiment seem to be obvious now. Yet the wonderful aspect of this experience was that all of the difficulties and challenges were not things I should have avoided or eliminated but potentially exciting and productive learning opportunities in their own right. The “challenge” in challenge-based learning turns out to be as much to the teacher as it is to the students.

Acknowledgments: I am extremely grateful to my expert helpers who contributed their and energy to the project. It would not have succeeded without them: Jeff Carrier, Jim Whitehouse, Doug White, and Renna Van Dooren. In addition, this work was supported by a grant from the Ferguson family and the HewlettMellon Fund for Faculty Development at Albion College, Albion. MI.

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