The integration of so-called development projects with a primary focus on facilitating a learning environment with an emphasis on knowledge transfer has likely enhanced engagement among members at EA NTNU. This post outlines the process of integrating development projects into our weekly project work sessions, including a data-driven assessment and theory-driven reflections to analyze the impact of our shift in focus.
Rationale Behind Development Projects
A challenge EA NTNU has experienced in recent years is to maintain a high level of engagement among older members who have already been active in the organization for more than a year. Some of the older members have experienced diminishing returns on the time spent on practical project work organized by EA NTNU. Through 1-on-1's, the board uncovered that this is likely due to a lack of self development from project work with too much focus on practical tasks rather than learning. The work meetings could become more engaging if the members were given a greater degree of freedom to learn what they were interested in. This led to the proposal of establishing a separate category of projects with special focus on self development, so-called development projects. The proposal marks a change between the traditional practical projects organized by EA NTNU since 2016 and the new development projects.
Implementation of Development Projects
The following development projects were established on 26th of January 2022, and were set to last for 6 weeks:
- Explore interesting, instructive and useful posts on EA Forum
- Explore interesting, instructive and useful posts on LessWrong
- Update numbers, calculations and examples in Beth Barnes' TEDx-talk from 2015
- Individual career planning following the 8-week career planning program by 80,000 Hours including regular follow-ups from group organizers, encouragement to apply for 1-on-1 career guidance with EA Norway and/or 80,000 Hours, and encouragement to apply for EAG conferences.
- Learning more about alternative proteins with respect to the Alternative Protein Fundamentals Program.
With the exception of the individual career planning, all members working on development projects were encouraged to generate either a write-up or a short presentation to be presented at the end of the 6 weeks. The purpose of this was to facilitate a better flow of knowledge within the organization, and to ensure good learning outcomes among the development project members.
During the first 6 weeks, approximately one-third of EA NTNU's active members (9 members) worked on development projects, resulting in the following:
- LessWrong: 1-hour interactive presentation about rationality and human bias presented at a social retreat 25-27th of February.
- Alternative proteins: Informative and clear presentation on the state of progression for alternative proteins and it's future projection presented during a work meeting.
- Career planning progression roughly equivalent to reaching week 3 in 80,000 Hours' 8-week career planning program for three members.
- Pitch for doing individual career planning presented during a work meeting.
Mostly due to COVID isolations, the EA Forum project and Beth Barnes' TEDx project were not carried out completely and did not produce any write-up or presentation.
Some of our members spent the last two months setting up a group focusing on alternative proteins, which has been accepted to the GFI Alt Protein Project. One of the founding members in this group attended the Alternative Protein Fundamentale Program as their development project. There is some probability that the group would not have been set up if it were not for development projects. This is because of the following causal relationships:
- The member got introduced to the APFP program during an EA work meeting and applied.
- The member got accepted to the APFP and was allowed to take the program as a development project.
- This meant that the member did not have to leave the EA work meetings because of time constraints.
- Still being a part of the EA NTNU work environment inspired them to apply for EAGxOxford.
- Attending EAGx inspired them along with others from EA NTNU to start an alternative proteins student organization.
- Having Alternative Proteins as a development project also included presenting some of the stuff they had learned halfway and at the end of the program, which in turn inspired other members of EA NTNU to join the new alternative protein student organization.
This is an intriguing example that sheds light on how the majority of the impact from a development project might not originate from the project itself, but rather from the increased level of engagement that may lead to other impactful initiatives.
After 6 weeks, it was time to continue with the second 6-week project period. This time, members were encouraged to propose specific development project ideas. Among the suggestions, members were interested in learning about political game theory, interpretation of statistics in research, and meditation. These were subsequently established as development projects, and members were encouraged to create a set of two presentations, one for each project/topic of their choosing.
After finishing the second 6-week period with project work, a final work session was arranged for the development project groups to present their findings. The development projects resulted in the following:
- Presentation about common fallacies in statistical interpretation
- Presentation about how game theory affects decision-making in politics
- Presentation about where to donate to maximize impact taking into account nuances regarding cause prioritization
- Presentation about an introduction to meditation
- Two meditation workshops
- One discussion meeting about population decline, alternative proteins and book recommendations
From an outside perspective, the level of engagement was high among the members that had the opportunity to share what they had learned. They received verbal rewards from the rest of the members, which further boosted their motivation.
Practical Projects Running in Parallel
In addition to the development project presentations, evaluations and updates from the groups working with practical projects were presented. This is where the group working with answering questions on Stampy's Wiki in cooperation with Robert Miles' AI Discord community presented their evaluation of the project that resulted in this linked forum post. Another group presented an update of their work with EA Outreach Through Ethics Classes, and a third group presented an evaluation of their work with planning to map Norwegian farmers' willingness to transition to more sustainable farming methods. A final group presented an update about their project on making a timeless promotional video for EA NTNU.
Data-Driven Assessment from Internal Surveys
From EA NTNU's internal survey conducted at the end of March for all members of EA NTNU, both active and passive, 18 members answered that they very much liked the development projects, and that it should become a permanent alternative in later semesters. This is a high number considering that there were fewer than 18 unique members actively working with the development projects. None expressed dissatisfaction or resistance to the development projects, making the implementation of development projects successful in terms of the members approval. Additionally, 8 people answered that they had made a significant change to their career plans since March 1 2021, of which 4 people answered that career planning as a development project had been an important contribution to their career plan change. This indicates that the development projects have been successful, and should be continued in coming semesters.
In retrospect, I'm skeptical about using self-reported satisfaction as a metric for increased engagement. In future surveys, I will rather survey whether members experienced an increase in their sense of autonomy and competence, as these factors promote self-determined motivation.
Epistemic status: Completed two leadership courses at my university, namely Managing Voluntary Organizations and Top Management Positions in Voluntary Organizations. Thoroughly read >20 papers related to Self-Determination Theory.
Anchoring reflections in theories backed up by empirical studies can assist community builders in creating a framework from which to structure their organization. We can understand how diverse conditions affect the motivation of members in our organization via the lens of Self-Determination Theory (SDT). This research summary explaining how to incubate self-driven individuals (7-minute read) covers the basics of SDT and lists interventions leaders and community builders can implement at their own organization.
Competence concerns the feeling of mastery, success and growth, and is best satisfied withing well-structured environments that afford optimal challenges, positive feedback, and opportunities for growth (Ryan & Deci, 2020). The survey data revealing high levels of satisfaction might indicate that facilitating development projects has been a successful approach for giving members opportunities to increase their knowledge and communication skills, and also explore and reflect on how they might best use their careers to do good. Other opportunities such as workshops and training sessions should also be looked into. Common for all of these, is that giving proper informative feedback enhances self-determined motivation (Deci et al., 2001) as it reinforces the members perceived competence (Ryan & Deci, 2020). Since giving feedback can be just as damaging as constructive to motivation (De Villiers, 2013), I recommend reading Giving and receiving feedback by Max Daniel to make sure it is done properly.
Autonomy concerns the sense of initiative and ownership in one's actions, and is supported by experiences of interest and value, and undermined by experiences of being externally controlled (Ryan & Deci 2020). By allowing people to make their own decisions and choices, you can create an environment that promotes autonomy. In contrast to the practical projects, members working on development projects were not bound to the project for a prolonged period (typically 4-6 weeks), but could explore and swap between different development projects to better suite their shifting interests. The development projects have therefore likely supported the members sense of autonomy, which in turn enhances self-determined motivation when combined with a sense of competence and relatedness.
Relatedness concerns a sense of belonging and connection (Ryan & Deci, 2020), and may be facilitated by creating opportunities for people to connect with others in the community. This can be in the form of social events, meetups, or simply providing a space for people to work together or otherwise connect by sharing their interests. At EA NTNU, additional to the work meetings, we host fellowships, retreats, parties, board game nights, co-working sessions, physical activities, and a social kick-off event with ice-breakers for new members. Even though this is not directly related to the development projects, it is fundamentally important for facilitating self-determined motivation, and has thus likely been a significant contributor to the success of the development projects.
That being said, the need for relatedness seems to vary greatly depending on the individual both in terms of quantity (i.e. how much the perceived relatedness affects self-determined motivation) and quality (i.e. what makes people feel related). Therefore, I advice organizers to offer various kinds of social events to their members while refraining from creating social pressures or expectations for members to join the social events.
Yet, having a clear membership seems to consistently create a sense of belonging to the group. EA NTNU does this by requiring potential new members to apply and undergo an interview before being admitted to the group. Once they are accepted, they are officially welcomed as a members of the group, which is thought to facilitate a sense of belonging.
The integration of development projects was well received by our members, and they will likely become permanent alternatives to practical projects at EA NTNU. Compared to the traditional practical projects, the development projects introduced a higher degree of freedom in choosing what and how to spend time on learning. Additionally, the development projects emphasized intellectual growth and communication practice. Arguing from the framework of Self-Determination Theory, the development projects have therefore likely increased members engagement through building their sense of competence and by supporting their autonomy.
Revisiting the choice of integrating development projects as alternatives to practical projects, I am confident that facilitating a combination of development projects and practical projects is much more impactful than organizing only one of these. Two assumptions underpin this:
- For starters, we can assume that most students will have far more influence later in their careers. Development projects can be viewed as an investment in increasing the likelihood that this leverage will be used more effectively. The career planning program is an obvious example of this, but presentations from the other project groups have also contributed. For example, being more aware of common biases and fallacies will help to have a more accurate understanding of reality, making it easier to direct leverage where it is most needed.
- Second, development projects are non-exhaustive, meaning that they can be repeated multiple times. This is important for engagement-driven student groups that benefit from having a diverse range of projects for members to engage with. In addition to promoting autonomy, a diverse range of projects make it more likely that everyone will find something suitable to work on. Some practical projects can have a considerably greater impact than development projects, which is why they should be considered as viable options. Gi Effektivt - the "Norwegian Givewell" - has now raised roughly more than 3 mill euro, and is an example of an impactful practical project that spun off from EA NTNU. Impactful practical projects, on the other hand, are more rare because many of them are exhaustive, which means that once the project is completed, there will be no need to repeat the project.
Previously, EA NTNU struggled to generate enough meaningful and engaging practical projects, resulting in some projects becoming less valuable. Our engagement-driven group may now replace the less impactful practical projects with an abundance of engaging development projects, considerably increasing the total value generated.
De Villiers, R. (2013). 7 Principles of highly effective managerial feedback: Theory and practice in managerial development interventions. International Journal of Management Education. 11. 66-74. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijme.2013.01.002
Deci, E. L., Koestner, R. & Ryan, R. M. (2001) "Extrinsic Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation in Education: Reconsidered Once Again", Review of Educational Research, 71(1), pp. 1–27. doi: 10.3102/00346543071001001.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2020). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation from a self-determination theory perspective: Definitions, theory, practices, and future directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 61, Article 101860. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2020.101860
EA NTNU has since 2016 been inspired by the SCRUM project management system to conduct potentially impactful practical projects. All members (except alumni) gather every week to work with various projects for three hours. This is what makes EA NTNU an engagement-driven group, which I might write a separate forum post about. Meanwhile, feel free to read a more detailed albeit outdated overview of projects at EA NTNU.
The distinction between practical projects and development projects is a coarse simplification. In reality, it's more like a spectrum with direct practical actions at one end, and development at the other end, and even this model is not covering everything. Most projects lie somewhere in between, being both practical and developmental, like this student project for engaging with AI alignment.
In truth, this project was more like a mix between being a development project and a practical project, or rather a research project. As mentioned in the first footnote, the categorization of these projects is coarsely simplified, and I will likely not continue distinguishing between practical projects and development projects in the future.
When reading over the methodology of some of the studies on the effect of autonomy, full autonomy in the sense of "do anything you want" was not a thing. Rather, autonomy was defined as the ability to select from a limited number of predetermined possibilities. This would be enough to develop perceived autonomy, which would satisfy the psychological need for autonomy. I am also concerned that full autonomy leads to choice paralysis, especially for new members that do not feel competent knowing what they should spend time on working with.
Specifically 33 892 456 NOK, as of 2nd of September 2022.