In my "stronger" class, the presentations have been excellent. The discussions have been interesting and the the students are clearly interacting with the material in ways I could never have hoped they would had I assigned them the same thing. Class participating seems a little better, though dominated by a handful of students. I'll have to "encourage" the students to find a way to include more of their peers in the discussions. No one has dropped the class. There have been no complaints about attendance or students not doing their "fair share." It's amazing.
My other class, we started with the required essay. This was a MISTAKE. Yes, it was a mistake that the students directed, but it's a mistake that I won't allow happen in the future. Here's why it was a mistake. Students wanted to get the required paper out of the way first, and as a result, the class turned into a traditional course, mostly directed by me. The students weren't engaging with the subject. Students stopped coming. Some students didn't even hand in an essay. The course became too much like a normal class, so they treated it as such.
Now, we're on to projects of their choosing. The difference is incredible. Students who never said a word are engaged and excited. Attendance isn't a problem anymore (except for a few who I think are going to withdraw). The lesson is, do the unconventional first, because then they'll be hooked and more likely to produce good work, even on their "traditional assignment." I will still given students the choice of what they work on, how the project is formatted, how they are ultimately graded/evaluated, but I think I will set the schedule for them from now on.
I'm fascinated by this video on motivation. What worked with my students was to let the students do exactly what Dan Pink recommends (Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose), the results were impressive. In my "stronger" class, we never talked about grades. Not once. In my other class, grades became their incentive/reward/profit. And it didn't work. There was little autonomy (at least, they didn't perceive that there was; they saw that they were required to write a traditional essay and thus lost their autonomy), little desire for mastery (meh, writing, rather than mastery or attempting mastery of a topic that they are interested in), and their purpose was simply to get a paper out of the way and get the grades.
Now, I'm trying to figure out how to provide this same kind of environment in my other classes.