The final project or paper (or any other major project) is a classic assessment strategy. It works best when it is carefully structured, with a rationale and outcomes that are transparent to students; provides ample opportunities for intermediate feedback, and gives students options for how they present what they’ve created. The traditional term paper may be effective for some students, but for many, it is not an effective learning experience or an accurate way to gauge what they have achieved in your class. Here are some considerations for designing major projects.

Be Transparent

Students are most successful when they know what is expected of them and why. Consider how your project fits into the course:

  • What are the project outcomes, and how do they relate to the course outcomes?
  • Does the project allow students to apply what they have learned to ensure they’re ready for the next course in sequence?
  • What are the mechanics of the project, like length, depth, due dates, format, etc.?
  • What are your expectations for quality?

Transparency can come in many forms: detailed assignment descriptions (including mechanics), samples of excellent work by past students (with their permission), rubrics distributed in advance, etc.

Transparency also serves equity! Those of us who teach–who are typically highly educated and experienced in our fields–eventually come to assume that everyone knows what a typical deliverable in our field, like a research paper, grant proposal, or sample syllabus, is. A first-generation college student, or a student from an underserved high school, may not. An international student may not be aware that page counts for papers in U.S. colleges assume 12-point font and double spacing. A surprising number of students come to college unaware of what it means to cite sources properly. Be as specific as you can in your expectations, and provide access to resources like Library research consultations, peer tutoring, and Academic Success services early.

Scaffold It

Scaffolding learning means envisioning the process of learning as a set of building blocks (or scaffold levels) that rise on each other. Attaining skills in one area provides the foundation for the next. Along the way, students have a clear understanding of why the topics or skills they’re studying are being presented in the order they are, and how one leads to the next.

Projects can also be scaffolded; this is a significant characteristic of project-based learning. While scaffolding a project or projects could take many different forms, we refer here to scaffolding within a single major project to ensure that students are equipped to execute the final stages. Here’s an example of scaffolding from a final research project that demonstrates the principle:

Canvas assignment group titled "Final Project", showing assignments for the final project topic, annotated bibliography, outline and thesis, in-class presentations, peer feedback, final product, and reflection.

In this example, typical prewriting exercises are given a modest point value (this course used additive grading to a maximum of 100 points), and are spaced so the instructor can provide feedback before the students proceed. The project also includes different kinds of tasks, including collaborative ones (like providing feedback for a peer and giving a presentation), which provide opportunities for students to accumulate credit in more than one way.

Other types of projects may take advantage of scaffolding in different ways, but the general principle is to order the components so they build on each other in both the development of the final product and students’ skill development, provide regular feedback, and break up the grade into manageable components.

When you set a schedule for your scaffolded project assignments, try to ensure that you have time to grade the intermediate assignments and give feedback before students need to turn in the next stage. A thoroughly scaffolded project with multiple opportunities for feedback often spans half a semester!

Offer Options

In some cases, it may be necessary to the course outcomes for students to produce one particular kind of project deliverable (for example, a program). In others, you have more flexibility, but may have been prescribing the same kind of deliverable out of habit. This is common in classes that require a term paper or final essay.

While professional students need to have solid communication skills (including written composition), in many cases, students may be able to show the development of their knowledge and thinking better in a medium that is not writing. For example, for a broadcast student, producing a “radio” segment could be both a better way to demonstrate their mastery of a Core course’s learning outcomes and an opportunity to practice a kind of composition that will be much more relevant to their career than a traditional term paper.

Therefore, we recommend offering students a few options for completing a final composition when appropriate. As you design your project, think about its outcomes and how they might be demonstrated. You will need to provide specific expectations for each mode that you allow (for example, the length of an audio production that you would consider equivalent to the length of a paper). This flexibility pays dividends as you see what students who might underperform in one medium achieve in another!

Offering options is also a good way of fostering equity. In addition to providing a way for students whose past education did not prepare them as writers to show they can meet the course outcomes, different media also work better for different kinds of knowledge production. It invites in perspectives and ways of understanding the world that have traditionally been excluded in higher education.

Use Technology for Flexibility

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we discovered that technologies all Champlain faculty have access to offer great opportunities for completing final projects and sharing them with classmates. Google Sites is particularly versatile and can be used for creative and resource work (for example, a digital gallery of artwork, complete with artists’ statements, or a virtual poster session); learn more about creatively leveraging Sites.

All Google Suite apps (Docs, Slides, Jamboard, and others) provide opportunities for students to collaborate on a flexible schedule as they prepare group projects. Individual students can also use Google Suite apps for brainstorming, mind-mapping, or iterative assignments in a scaffolded project on which you can provide feedback. Learn more about leveraging Slides and leveraging Jamboard.

These strategies are also flexible, making them great options for ensuring academic continuity.

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