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Planning Major Projects

When faced with designing a major end-of-course project, instructors often turn to the 8-10 page research paper as a default. In some cases this may be completely appropriate but it is important to consider if a research paper is properly aligned with the learning goals of a course. Of particular concern are major projects that expect students to employ a skill they have not yet developed. Another challenge is major projects that are tacked on to the end of a course without encouraging students to work on the project over a significant amount of time - the result is that students leave the work until the last minute, rarely receive constructive feedback in time to apply it, and produce student work the instructors is dissatisfied with.

Ideally any major course project is aligned with course goals, provides an accurate measurement of student learning, and is integrated throughout the course to help students develop applicable workplace skills.

The Purpose of Major Projects

Major projects serve several purposes. While some instructors may consider them valuable for cumulative grading, major projects can also be used to assess student learning in more meaningful ways than other course work allows for.

Any major project that is authentic and applicable to the workplace is a measure of student achievement but also an opportunity for students to practice producing meaningful work. Through an authentic major project, you make the steps in the learning process visible and tie classroom work to professional skill development in a way that shows to the student the applicability and relevance of the work. For all these elements to be realized, major projects need to be integrated throughout the entire course and intrinsically connected to course learning outcomes.

Opportunities:

  • Authentic representation of student comprehension
  • Addition to a student’s professional portfolio
  • Competency-based assessment

Challenges:

  • Integration and feedback will need to be planned for and maintained throughout course
  • Designing a project that will be meaningful to students
  • Determining the type or format of the project

A critical criterion for the success of an end-of-course project is its alignment with course objectives.

The first step in determining a specific project is to examine the objectives of the course and consider what evidence the students could produce to show you those objectives have been met.

For example: in a clinical setting, a project may be the accomplishment of a multi-step task that instructs, guides, and then showcases skill development, such as researching potential drug interactions based on a sample case history as a basis for proposing a treatment plan. In a medical ethics course where students are expected to develop the skills to analyze complex issues and defend a reasoned position, an end-of course project may ask the students to explore the ramifications of a case in front of the courts on access to health care.

Make it authentic

The defining feature of an effective project is that it is an authentic representation of student mastery of course concepts and skills.

When designing the project, consider the workplace or clinical skills and knowledge that a practitioner uses. How are those skills and concepts manifested in the course? How can students showcase mastery of those concepts and skills? It is unlikely that a student in a health care field will be asked to produce a 10-page research paper once she is an active practitioner. But she may be asked to write a literature review, or a grant proposal, or a needs analysis.

Consider the process

Students will not enter the course with the necessary skills to complete an end-of-course project. And while the course may instruct the student on the core concepts, without acquiring and applying those skills the students will be unable to complete the project. Hence, you should consider the development of those skills as a process that is made up of steps that build on one another to achieve student competency.

Some skills can be taught in a formal manner (database research skills, for example), while others can be taught by modeling, practice, and reflection (initial patient interview, for example). You should expose the process to the students, explaining how each step leads to final mastery of the information and skills and provide feedback on each step of the process.

In an introductory course where students have little previous experience to draw on, the students may need more scaffolding. That is, you model a complex procedure or scenario, and the students then complete discrete elements of the project based on the expected skill level of the course.

Make it meaningful

For a project to be valued by the student, it needs to be designed and presented in a way that displays its connection to real-world skill development. Just as the required component of a major project should be clear to students, the purpose of the project should also be clear. Meaningful work engages students in the activity of the profession and helps them display mastery of course concepts.

Provide formative feedback

Do not wait until the project is completed to provide feedback to students. By then, it is too late for the feedback to affect either the project or the student learning, and the time and energy you have dedicated to feedback has been wasted. Instead, build in opportunities to assess student progress and determine the direction of the project and the development of the student. These check-ins can be formal deliverables that are graded (see below), or informal discussions either with individuals or as a whole group. Examples of informal check-ins include student self-checks against a pre-determined timeline and rubric, peer review (see below), and staggered low-stakes evaluation from the instructor (see below).

General tips

Begin early and revisit often.

Assign the project early in the semester – if not the first day. Explain to students why they are being asked to complete the project and how it connects to the profession. Leave time to address any questions at that early stage, with the knowledge that more questions will arise closer to the due date. At appropriate, but multiple, points throughout the course remind students about the project and its applicability to the content, the discipline, and the profession.

Provide a rubric

Grading rubrics serve several purposes. They make scoring assessments easier, provide consistency of scoring across student submissions, answer student questions before they are elevated to the instructor, and help resolve grade challenges.

Build in benchmarks

Any long-term project should have regular check-ins so that students can mark their progress against an established timeline. These benchmarks can be graded (see “Incremental grading” below) or ungraded, but they should require students to produce a component of the larger project.

Potential benchmarks will depend on the project. The development of a research project might include: project plan; problem statement; research design; literature review; annotated bibliography; and initial draft. If the project were a case analysis the benchmarks might include: definition of the problem; identification of key medical, social, economic elements of the case; discussion of resources; proposal of solutions; and assessment of potential outcomes.

Other Considerations for Major Projects

Peer review

Long-standing learning theory indicates that students learn best in a social environment. Yet, too often, major learning assessments are completed and graded in isolation. In this extension, consider building in peer review at key points in the student’s process of completing the end-of-course project.

Peer review allows for the creator to receive feedback at a formative stage in the process, and it also allows the reviewer to experience methods and approaches that may differ from theirs. Peer review can be incorporated at the beginning of the process when students are determining the scope of the project or establishing the problem statement. Peer review at this stage can equally instruct the reviewer who learns from the experience of his/her partner. It can also be incorporated toward the end of the project, during the drafting phase. An additional benefit to the reviewer at that point is to experience the variety of approaches to solve a problem or come to a determination.

Regardless of its placement, peer review functions best when it is guided by clear directives regarding tone, expectations, and length. A further extension is to grade the reviewers against a rubric that is provided in advance to provide more value to the process.

Incremental grading

While all end-of-course projects should be graded, you have the option of grading only the final product or grading the individual components. A further decision to make is whether to grade the component parts at one time or spread out over the duration of the course.

In this extension, you should consider providing a grade for each deliverable that is associated with a benchmark. Grading the component parts incrementally reduces the weight of the final draft while emphasizing each phase of the process of completing the project. Students also receive formative feedback on their progress toward completing the entire project.

Staggered low (no)-stakes evaluation

Not all component parts of an end-of-course project need to be formally graded. In many cases a quick check on student work is enough to reassure students they are on the right trajectory and inform you on overall student progress. In this extension, consider building in opportunities for the students to receive quick feedback on isolated elements of the project.

This feedback can be in the form of a check/check plus system where the check signals completion and the check plus signals mastery, or a point system that corresponds to a pre-determined rubric. The purpose of this evaluation is to maintain student motivation in the process and to provide in-the-moment feedback that validates their work and encourages progress.

Reflection

In a well-designed major project, students will showcase the cumulative development of skills and acquisition of knowledge. Essentially, they will display how much they have learned over the duration of the course. Building in a short reflective assignment that asks students to consider the skills they developed and the knowledge they acquired will help reinforce the learning and promote lifelong personal reflection. The reflection component can be built into the assignment as a separate short document, or it could be completed in an online journal that is submitted electronically to the instructor.

Regardless of the modality, a reflective assignment should ask the students to consider their individual path they took to complete the project and what skills they developed that they feel will be applicable to the workplace.

Further Readings

Walvoord, Barbara E., and Anderson, Virginia Johnson (2009). Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment in College.

Stevens, Dannelle D. and Levi, Antonia J. (2004) Introduction to Rubrics: An Assessment Tool to Save Grading Time, Convey Effective Feedback and Promote Student Learning.

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