IX. Personal Projects

     Within an academy, every year, every student should have the opportunity to work on a personal project of their own design. The classic approach to this is the Personal Project, which has seven phases.

Phase I: Identifying a Personal Goal to Pursue

     During this phase, students set personal goals or accomplishments that push them and expand their awareness about themselves. There are three components to this phase.

Overcoming the Fear of Failure

     When students identify goals they can become overwhelmed by the thought of what it takes to accomplish them. As a result, they can become intimidated or afraid, and they might give up before they begin. Overcoming this fear of failure is a lifelong skills that is critical to learning how to set deeply meaningful goals. To help students identify and set goals, encourage them to write down a list of things they would like to accomplish if they knew they would not fail.

Breaking Patterns From the Past

     When students begin working on challenging goals, the habits they have developed in the past can help or hinder those efforts. These habits are called patterns of the past. Help students enforce good patterns or break bad patterns by first asking them to select a specific goal from the list of things they would do if they knew they would not fail. Then, use the following questions to help them reflect on both positive and negative patterns from the past:

  • What am I doing now that would help me be successful in achieving this goal?

  • What am I doing now or what have I done in the past that would keep me from being successful?


     Finally, ask students to determine specific things they can do to break from negative patterns. A question like the following can help guide students:

  • What would I need to do to change this?

Identifying a Future Accomplishment or Goal

     Now students can identify a specific goal or accomplishment they would like to actively work on. Encourage students by asking them to think about what life might be like when the goal is realized. Specific answers to the following questions can help:

  • What goal have you selected?

  • When you accomplish this goal, where will you be living?

  • What are some things you will be doing?

  • What will you look like?

  • What type of people will you be working with?

  • How will you feel about yourself?

Phase II: Eliciting Support

     During this phase students examine the nature of support and identify a network of support for themselves. This phase has five components.

Identifying a Circle of Support

     As students pursue their goals, it is important for them to have support from a number of sources. Ask students to think about the goal they have selected. Ask them to identify the people who currently support them and how those people might be helpful as they pursue their goal. Additionally, they might need support from other sources. Ask students to think about other types of support they might need and the types of people who might provide it. Figure 9.1 can be useful to this end.


  • What additional support do I think I might need?

  • Who might give me this support?

Identifying Heroes, Role Models, and Mentors

     As students are working on their goals, it is useful for them to have heroes, role models, and mentors who inspire and encourage them. Heroes are people, living or dead, who have accomplished what the student wants to accomplish. Usually, students do not have access to their heroes. Role models are also people who have accomplished goals that are similar to the student’s goals; however, they are people who a student might be able to contact. Finally, a mentor is someone who is willing to help a student accomplish his or her goal. Ask students to identify people who can be heroes, role models, and mentors for them. Figure 9.2 can help students in this process.

Learning About Heroes, Role Models, or Mentors

     From the list of heroes, role models, and mentors that students have generated, ask them to select one person. Then, ask them to find out more about that person by answering the following questions:

  • Who is your hero, role model, or mentor?

  • When and where was this person born?

  • Where is this person now, and what did this person accomplish?

  • What are some of the major obstacles that this person had to overcome? How did this person do it?

  • Who helped this person along the way?

  • Why is this person a hero, role model, or mentor for you?

  • What do you think you can learn from this person that will help you as you pursue your goal?

Constructing the Winner’s Profile

     When students study people they consider to be successful, they will find characteristics or traits those people have in common. By studying the traits of successful people, students can learn how to be successful as well. Help students do this by asking them to fill out the following chart displayed in figure 9.3. When they have done so, they can determine what characteristics or traits these people all have in common. Additionally, they can use this information to help them pursue their goal.

Understanding the Nature of Support

     Students who are pursuing meaningful goals will sometimes find that some of the support they receive may not be beneficial. For example, a mentor may provide advice that does not help a student move forward. Students will need to stop and think about the type of support they are getting and reflect on the effect it is having. Figure 9.4 can help students think about the support they have had and the effect it has had on them.

Phase III: Gathering Information About the Goal

     During this phase students explore what it will require of them to accomplish their goal. This phase has three components.

Identifying Your Future Possible Self

     When attempting to reach a goal, it is helpful for students to imagine what life would be like if the goal was accomplished. This process is called identifying your future self. Ask students to write a description of themselves in the future. To stimulate thinking, ask students to answer the following questions in figure 9.5.

Articulating Necessary Experiences and Accomplishments

     Reaching important goals involves learning through experience and other accomplishments. Experiences help students gain important skills and background knowledge. Accomplishments involve passing tests or obtaining certifications. The following questions can help students identify the experiences and accomplishments important to achieving their goals.

  • What types of experiences must I have?

  • How will I acquire these experiences?

  • What types of accomplishments will be required?

  • How will I gain these accomplishments?

Articulating Necessary Schooling

    Once students have identified the experiences and accomplishments necessary to complete their goals, they will need to think about the type of schooling they will need. The following questions can help students determine what kind of schooling (or training) they will need and how they might obtain this schooling.

  • What different types of schools will I have to go to?

  • How long will it take me to acquire this schooling?

  • Where are these schools located?

  • What are the entrance requirements to get into these schools?

  • How much money will it cost to go to these schools?

Phase IV: Discerning Discrepancies Between Current and Future Self

     This phase requires students to take a deep look at where they wish to go as opposed to where they are currently. This phase has one component.

Completing a Discrepancy Analysis

     Once students have written descriptions of their future selves and identified experiences, accomplishments, and schooling they will need, they will likely notice a difference between where they are currently and where they need to be. This difference is referred to as a discrepancy. By analyzing the discrepancies between where they are now and where they want to be in the future, students can identify actions they must take. Completing figure 9.6 can help students complete an independent discrepancy analysis of the goals they have identified.

Phase V: Creating a Plan

     During this phase students design a detailed plan to accomplish their goal. This phase has two components.

Planning Backward

     Students must understand that planning is an essential part of achieving their goals. One way to help them create a plan is to ask them to determine a date by which they want to achieve their goal (the date their future possible self-description becomes a reality). Then, they can plan backwards from that date by creating a rough timeline from that future date until today. Figure 9.7 can help students identify the dates they will achieve their goals and the dates and significant events that will occur between today and that future date.

Making Declarations

     When pursuing any goal, it is helpful for students to declare to others what they intend to do. Such a declaration creates accountability to others—students understand that other people will have expectations about their actions. Ask students to think about the goal they are pursuing and determine what declarations they would like to make relative to that goal and to whom they would like to make them. Figure 9.8 can help students in this task.

Phase VI: Moving Into Action

     This phase requires students to take a significant first step. There is one component to this phase.

Taking Small Steps

     When students want to achieve a goal, it is important to encourage them to do it step by step. This is especially true of goals they expect to achieve in the future. For students to feel connected to future goals, it helps to identify a small step or two they can do in the next few weeks—something they can actually accomplish. This small step should be directly related to the plans they have already been making. Figure 9.9 can help students identify small steps.

Phase VII: Evaluating the Effectiveness of Your Actions

     Phase VI can continue until the end of the schoolyear. At that point students should be engaged in Phase Vii, which involves examining their actions. This phase has three components.

Reevaluating Plans

     When students begin working on goals, they might find that unexpected things happen or unexpected delays occur. As a result, they may need to reevaluate and adjust their plans. This might include adding new steps, changing existing steps, or deleting steps. Answering the following questions may help them identify any changes or additions they might need to make.

  • What has happened that you did not expect?

  • What has happened that you did expect?

  • What changes have you make or still need to make in thinking about your project?

Creating Aphorisms

     Throughout their personal projects, students have been reading inspirational quotes attributed to others. It helps students to create aphorisms of their own. An aphorism is a short statement about something they believe to be true. Ask students to reflect on what they have learned and experienced and create their own aphorisms. Figure 9.10 can help guide students in this task.

Evaluating Success

     At this point, students should pause and reflect on how effective they have been in completing their personal project. The following questions can help students evaluate their progress.

  • What are some things that I did well during my personal project?

  • What are some things that I did not do well during my personal project?

  • What are some things that I would do differently?

  • What did I learn about myself?

Making Adaptations

     The seven phases described above have been used effectively in grades four through twelve. For grades K through three it is best to make adaptations to make the process more age-appropriate. One adaptation is to simplify the language. For example, instead of referring to phase II as “Eliciting Support,” refer to it as “Getting Help.” Instead of referring to Phase VII as “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Your Actions,” refer to it as “Looking at How Well I Did.”

     At the high school level, the program might be made more detailed in some places. For example, in the component of the process that requires students to research information regarding their goals, students might be asked to cite specific resources they have used. During Phase III, when students are responding to the component that asks them to articulate necessary experiences and accomplishments, high school students might be required to provide formal citations to the source documents they used.

     In short, academy teachers should feel free to make adaptations to the seven phases and components within those phases to tailor long-term projects to the needs of their students.

Embedding Metacognitive Skills

     Personal projects are a perfect venue for students to demonstrate their prowess at the metacognitive skills. Recall that in Section IV of this manual those metacognitive skills were defined as depicted in figure 9.11.

     Virtually all of the skills can be demonstrated in one or more phases of the process. For example, setting goals and making plans fits naturally into phase V, creating a plan. Growth mindset thinking fits well into the component of overcoming fear of failure and breaking with patterns of the past.

     Students can be asked or required to identify a few metacognitive skills that they will use while progressing through their personal projects. For the metacognitive skills they select, students should use the appropriate proficiency scales to guide their actions. They should also self-assess themselves and provide evidence supporting the score they gave themselves.

The Accomplishment Fair

     Academy teachers are encouraged to have one or more “Accomplishment Fairs.” These might be modeled after the traditional science fair in which students develop exhibits to showcase the design and completion of their science projects. The accomplishment fairs would follow the same format but be focused on students’ personal projects. If possible, all students from the school along with their families and friends should be invited to participate in these celebrations. Accomplishment Fairs might be held after school. On a Monday night, let’s say, the fair would be for first grade students, on Tuesday night the fair would be for second grade students and so on. 

Capstone Projects

     Capstone projects are closely related to the personal projects. According to The Glossary of Education Reform for Journalists, Parents, and Community Members:


[A] capstone project is a multifaceted assignment that serves as a culminating academic and intellectual experience for students, typically during their final year of high school or middle school, or at the end of an academic program or learning-pathway experience. While similar in some ways to a college thesis, capstone projects may take a wide variety of forms, but most are long-term investigative projects that culminate in a final product, presentation, or performance. (Capstone project, 2016)


     Certainly. capstone projects can be used in lieu of personal projects. If this is the case, academy teachers should ensure that students embed metacognitive skills into their projects.

The Logistics of Personal Projects

     Personal projects can extend over the entire year, but it is recommended that they are executed in one half of the school year. Assuming that a school has a 36-week calendar, 18 of those weeks represent one half of the year. The seven phases of the process involve 20 specific components or activities. This roughly amounts to a little more than one component per week, although some components will take more time than others. Consequently, a teacher might address two or more components in a single week, and then provide two weeks for students to work on those components.

     Home room periods (or their equivalents) are probably the best venue in which to house personal projects. In that way, students will have the same teacher throughout the duration of their projects. It is highly recommended that teachers engage in their own personal projects during this time and progress through the phases with the students. Teachers should complete the various components with their students and share their accomplishments and awarenesses about themselves along with students.

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©Robert J Marzano

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