Designing for Better Final Projects
Consider the purpose: Why did you assign this particular project? What are you hoping students will learn from doing the work? Rather than a catch-all, a final project should be aligned with your highest priorities, and with what students have had opportunities to learn and to practice, so that it’s meaningful both for students to do and for you to read. When students see value in a project, they are more motivated to put in their best effort.
Write a clear project description: Ideally, a project description is separate from the syllabus and includes more detail than a brief description on a syllabus would. A transparent project description clearly defines the purpose of the project, the task(s), the process for completing the task(s), and the criteria for success. Providing this information in writing (i.e., on Canvas), rather than explaining the details aloud in class, allows students to refer to it outside of class and throughout the process of completing their work.
Check for understanding: A great project description doesn’t help much if students don’t read it, or read but don’t fully understand it. (You might be surprised how often instructions or expectations that are clear to us are not clear to students.) It helps to launch the project in a way that includes a check for understanding. Some colleagues describe the project briefly in class, give students time to read the full project description, and then have a Q&A. Others create a homework assignment in which students read the project description and then post on a discussion board, responding to a few prompts, such as: In your own words, what are you supposed to do in this project? What will you turn in at the end? What do you think you might learn, or show that you have learned, by doing this project? What will successful work look like or include? What will you need to do (what steps will you take, what resources might you use) to complete your project successfully?
Spend class time on it: Designing class sessions to include some time for students to work (together or individually) on parts of their projects, or to do activities in which they learn something that they can apply to their final projects, ensures that students do the work over time instead of in a rush the night before the deadline. Just a few examples of in-class work they can do include: project planning (e.g., brainstorming, outlining); topic development; analysis and discussion of examples; research-related activities; guided self-assessment; structured peer review; etc.
Break it down: Students produce better work if—instead of doing all parts of the final project on their own, at once, outside of class—we break the project into a sequence of smaller assignments that help them build a larger work over time, and with opportunities for feedback and revision. For example, we might ask students to write a project proposal and an annotated bibliography, on which they get some feedback, before writing a research paper. Any kind of project can be broken into steps, and doing so can also help us to remember just how many component tasks and skills are involved in the projects we assign.
Build skills: Final projects usually ask students to draw on a wide variety of skills, some they’ve nearly mastered and others they’re just beginning to develop. Often it’s the intellectual work—the thinking processes—involved in our assignments that needs the most support. For example, if you ask students to analyze a text, what exactly do you mean by that? And how can they get some practice before they do it for a grade? If you ask students to synthesize new ideas, how do you guide them as they attempt it? Projects should be both level-appropriate and challenging; they aren’t level-appropriate if we unintentionally ask students to do new and complex intellectual work without adequate support.
Provide feedback: Feedback is necessary for learning. Final projects turn out better if we incorporate opportunities for feedback and revision. That said, our ability and capacity to give helpful, targeted feedback in time for students to use it depends on our class sizes and workloads, so we need to use feedback strategies that work for our teaching contexts.
Give encouragement: To us, the coursework we assign usually does not seem intimidating, so it’s easy to forget that students might see it that way. Novice-expert differences can be profound, so it’s important that we remember where our students are in their development. Our encouragement does make a difference to students, from the first year to the doctoral dissertation. When we communicate that we have high expectations for our students, we must also communicate that we have confidence that, with effort, they can succeed.
If you’d like some support with the final project for your course, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We love to meet one-on-one or in groups with our colleagues to work on assignment design, sequencing, scaffolding, and so on. We look forward to working with you!