Final Projects: The Perils and the Potential


Buddhist meditation in religious and secular contexts. The iconography of the Bodhisattva of Compassion in Nepal, Tibet, and China. An analysis of Hindu art and allusion on M.I.A.’s new album. A creative art triptych about students’ views of religion. A comparison of Mallik’s “The Tree of Life” and Prince Siddhartha’s story, with some help from Joseph Campbell. An exploration of race and identity in contemporary Buddhist practice.

These were the final projects done by my students in my fall Asian Religions course. And while I haven’t read them yet – they made short presentations in class yesterday – I am pretty proud of them. It’s also been a good opportunity to reflect on summative learning experiences: how do I want students – seniors, in this case – to end a semester-long course? What will be the last learning that they will show and demonstrate?

Their work seems promising, although I’ll know more as I read their actual work (and check footnotes, bibliographies, and the like). Yet I find myself wondering as a teacher if I could have done more to help them succeed. I guess I’ve been thinking about the perils and the potential of projects.

The Perils

The perils are clear: a student doesn’t plan well, gets buried in other work, waits until the last minute, and turns in something akin to a “Crayola on a cereal box,” as a colleague of mine once put it. This outcome can happen when expectations are not sufficiently clear coming from me, when there are not enough deadlines along the way, when students pick an exciting but too-ambitious topic…or when students, well, act like students: they attend to short-term work that is due in the short-term and put off long-term projects until they are right in front of them.

Some of this responsibility is on the students, no doubt. But some of it is on me. I’m still learning how to assign and design final projects in a way that maximizes student success. I’m using this post as a chance to reflect on where I am and to think about what I might do differently next time.

Goals: Why bother? To what end?

Why assign this kind of work? Why assess students in this way? There are a many reasons that come to mind for me, but a couple related ones stand out. First, I want students to take responsibility for their own learning. I want them to seek out information, to follow leads (or hyperlinks on the internet), to explore something that interests them. This latter point is especially important: I think of these projects as an opportunity for them to choose a topic that interests them, that they wish to write about. As a result, I deliberately do not provide any initial guidance (even a list of past topics) – I want students to come up with something on their own that interests them.

This lack of guidance often leads to an initial discovery: some students have no idea what interests them. These students may be quite good at doing whatever is asked of them, but they have not necessarily had the chance to stop and ask themselves what they care about. What moves them, morally or intellectually? A question like this may not have been asked before.

And the opportunity to do so can be a bit unsettling. To me, this uncertainty is fine, although it’s also a cause for worry a bit: are my students (and this is certainly not just the case at my present school) only good at doing what they’re told? Do they even see school as a place where they could be interested, and curious, and pursue their own learning and interests? For some, certainly. For others, it perhaps a bit less clear. But this first step – and the attendant uncertainty it might engender – seems like a valuable one.

So one goal seems to be a type of self-discovery. This goal also connects to an independent learning goal: much of this work will be done outside of class (or during all-class meetings in the library). I want students to make strides in working on their own on a large project, to learn how to budget their time, and to reflect on what did and did not work when the project is completed.

Another goal – although I have not really articulated it until writing this post – is a research goal. Of course I want students to choose good sources and research effectively. But I have rarely given the class time to go over proper research methods. I tend to assume that students have done this already (teaching seniors, I assume they’ve learned it in their US History courses when they write a research paper). Increasingly, however, this assumption seems like a poor one. It also leads to a missed opportunity. A class on research skills with a reference librarian would be an excellent use of time and would help students better navigate all the information out there. (I will never forget reading the bibliography of one project, finding it a bit odd, googling the phrase “what is microfinance,” and finding her four sources all on the first page of google.)  I need to be clearer with myself about my own pedagogical aims. Once I’ve done so, I can then articulate them to my students and plan class time accordingly

So. I’ve come to some valuable conclusions here: independent learning goals and research goals are two important reasons for this kind of learning. The self-knowledge piece is also worthwhile. I think I should also put in place process goals. I have added intermediate steps to my projects – research question(s), list of sources, bibliography, outline/structure, draft – but I could still be more explicit. This kind of structure helps all students, especially those who may come to class with less academic preparation.

The Potential

I’m hopeful, based on some of these reflections, that future project assignments can be tighter. More clarity on my end as a teacher can give students a clearer sense of what is expected of them, when it is expected of them, and – equally important – why it is expected of them. I’m not sure yet about how I would grade a project with all of this structure: is there a process grade? An independent learning grade? A self-assessment component? But I do think that these reflections can make for a more concrete experience with projects.

I am going to keep experimenting with projects. In addition to the strong showing this year, I’ve had students really get inspired by work that they’ve done. One wrote a proposal for a girls mentoring program that was ultimately adopted in a related form by the school. Another wrote a powerful essay comparing the rhetorical strategies of Shantideva, an 8th Century Buddhist monk to the NYTimes columnist Nick Kristof. One student wrote a thoughtful essay that analyzed the cherished Disney movies of her youth and came to some unsettling conclusions about the gender roles enshrined in those films. Another student spent hours (and hours) constructing a sand mandala before dissolving it – witnessing this dissolution was one of my most powerful moments as a teacher. Another worked on a blog about feminism, adding visual data to her analysis of gender inequality in America.

There have been some not-fully-realized projects along the way as well, of course. But I’m optimistic that with better planning and structure from my end, more and more students will have the opportunity to connect in an authentic way with material they find engaging and compelling. Stay tuned!

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