The payoff to students for doing well in school is a high Grade Point Average and a diploma. That is good as far as it goes, but most of our IT students really want more beyond just the school-based rewards. They want jobs, income, professional advancement. They want a secure, fulfilling, and happy life. Also, because students are often resource constrained – time, money, and attention for studies being at a premium – the more school work can carry them directly to the promised land of income enhancement, the more they will appreciate our efforts. For this reason, it’s a good idea to focus on three P’s – projects, portfolios, and performances. The reason is simple. Each of the three P’s work well for formative and summative assessments (school requirements), but they each also speak directly to job search and career enhancement. The connection between more traditional educational outputs like passing tests or writing papers to workforce skills is indirect at best. Projects, portfolios, and performances, by contrast, speak directly to what employers are really looking for and can have a positive material impact on student job search in near term. The return on educational investment for students will be far greater if we target our curriculum and assessment practices at the three Ps.


Projects emulate what work groups in business actually do. Namely, they involve goals, requirements, deliverables, quality assurance, testing, and collaborative processes to make all these things happen.  The more students in class create projects similar to actual workplace productions, the more qualified they will become for the actual workplace. In school, because of the calendar, we often need to steer students toward a quasi-waterfall model of project management. The school term is only so long, so project stages may need to be set in advance to get results on a short timeline. It is also possible, however, to adapt something like Agile sprints to school projects as well. One technique that is very simple for this purpose is to have students file weekly progress reports with retrospective self-assessments of what they achieved, and forward looking goal setting for the upcoming weeks. This keeps projects on a school-friendly schedule while allowing students to adapt and adjust along the way.


Portfolios are not so much a project assignment as they are a medium for presenting project assignments to the world. Like most everything else nowadays, HR recruiting is largely digital and Internet-based. Job seekers must assume that prospective employers will be using search engines to check them out. Ideally, students should want their best work to show up prominently at the top of any Internet search for their name or their work history. A self-designed online portfolio is great for this. IT students, especially, are trying to convince employers they can add value to a company’s digital sales or operations. Showing they can navigate the online world by constructing a web-based digital portfolio speaks volumes about a students digital fluency and ability to produce artifacts that can communicate and add value for different audiences.


IT students often find social interaction challenging. Nobody wants to work all day with digital equipment because they like a lot of human conversation! A bit of introversion is both necessary and desirable for IT work. That being said, though, for successful IT job search, even the most inward looking IT student needs to come out of his or her shell, painful as this may be. The simple reason is, job search is a social activity, and social networking (both the digital and the face-to-face varieties), is critical to getting a positive result. Students may not like to talk about their work a whole lot, but to get through a job interview (in IT, it’s usually more like a long series of interviews), students need to warm up to the idea of verbalizing what they do. In short, job seekers need a story to tell. They need to paint a picture of how they solve problems, how they manage stress, how they take initiative, how they work with teammates, how they find ways to produce results when all manner of challenges stand in the way.  IT classes can help prepare students for story-telling moments in the interview process by getting them to tell stories in their training program at each step of the way. Ask for reports. Ask students to document their processes. Ask students to share their work and their strategies with other students. Create assignments around project presentations at the end of the term. Don’t just let them turn in the project – make them discuss the “making of” the project. A project without a story attached is just inert. Make them tell stories to bring their projects to life. The stories are what will sell them as workforce candidates and get them the jobs and the compensation they set out to achieve.

Direct Instruction?

If the three P’s are so essential, one might wonder, why do traditional education at all? Why not just launch right into project and portfolio work from day one? All projects, all the time, would be a wonderful model, if students have enough skills walking in the door to independently perform significant IT tasks. Although some of our students to fit this highly experienced and self-motivated profile, most of our students signed up for classes precisely because they lack experience, self-confidence, or both. Our job is to get them there. No one is going to be impressed by a portfolio at the “Hello, World” level. In the early phases of skills acquisition, direct instruction with classic school assessments like tests, quizzes, and short homework assignments are going to be more manageable for students and more productive for their skills acquisition. Over time, though, be sure to start moving students more into a project-based direction. Place code samples into the context of real application examples. Challenge students to work on pieces of larger projects.  Give them starter code as scaffolding, then challenge them to add features, test the code, refactor it, make it bigger, make it more complete. In time, as students start to master syntax, get them thinking also about design. In the easiest courses, include at least one small project. In the capstone courses, make the whole course into a project. For the courses in between beginning and capstone, push the curriculum as far in the project direction as the students and the content can successfully manage. Remember, each course is just a stage in a longer pathway. DI in any given stage can be both desirable and necessary. But in the end, students without skills in the three P’s will have trouble converting grades and transcripts into job offers. So using DI to up-skill students for project work can be an excellent formula. It’s a way of doing school that remembers life beyond school is really the ultimate goal.