The Future Project

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Another common feature of December in the classroom is the long-term project, the culmination of a semester of work that sometimes replaces a written final. This project may take many forms, from a research paper to a creative portfolio or analytical essay. Each of these different tasks has its own challenges and opportunities for learning, but common to any type of long-term project is the importance of effective planning. 

People are notoriously bad at projecting ourselves into the future, consistently choosing to privilege short-term benefits over long-term goals in a phenomenon known by economists as temporal discounting. In the context of the long-term project, this means that we must consciously work to devise a clear plan with real incentives for gradual progress and disincentives for procrastination. We’ve all been in a situation where — even knowing how much better our work would be if we afforded ourselves a proper drafting process, with various rounds of revision — a months-long project floats along in the background until a few days before the deadline, when work must be crammed into the available hours and then submitted in a rush. School projects are a chance to build good habits for this type of project from a young age. 

In some cases, helpfully, a teacher will provide a set of intermediate deadlines for the project, so that in the final few days before the project is due, all that remains to be done is to stitch together the different components that have already been completed and revise them together. If these intermediate deadlines are mandatory, all the better — if they are merely ‘suggested,’ they should be treated as mandatory whenever possible, with some flexibility if an exam or major project in another class is pulling focus. If there are no intermediate deadlines, students should absolutely create their own. This can be accomplished by reflecting frankly on similar assignments they have completed in the past to accurately estimate how long each component — brainstorming a question, initial reading and research, the annotated bibliography, outline, first draft, second draft, etc — will take them, and then creating a project planning document with the deadlines written out together (and entering each into the general academic planner). If students have someone — a parent, a friend, a tutor — who they can ask to help hold them accountable to these independently chosen deadlines, all the better. 

Of course, the day-to-day work of sticking to this schedule contains its own executive functioning challenges. Students might benefit from using a timer to work in twenty-minute distraction-free chunks without their phones, and they’ll need to balance the long-term needs of the project against short-term work and tests in other subjects. This is all the more reason to break the larger project down into manageable pieces, so that progress can be made in 20-30 minute chunks over the course of a week. Planning for the future is inherently difficult, but doing so in a pragmatic, proactive way gives students a chance to take more control over their schedule, reducing stress and improving the final result.