This is the fifth (and final?) post in a continuing series of posts on reflections from the Spring 2011 semester of teaching.
Given that the goal of the class was to get the students to understand the material, rather than being able to regurgitate it, I wanted to do something for the final that would give the students an opportunity to demonstrate their understanding gained beyond regurgitation. I also wanted to give the students an opportunity to do philosophy in ways beyond writing a paper. These desires led me to design this final project assignment.
The students were expected to do and present a final project that demonstrated philosophical understanding, but could be done in ways that are atypical for a philosophy class. I gave them some general ideas, but I wanted the students to be the source of how they wanted to do this project. I made it clear that a paper was just as acceptable as any other project, but that they could engage these philosophical ideas in creative and artistic ways as well.
In order to give each student the leeway they needed, I met with each student over coffee or lunch in groups of 2 or 3 students. (Given that I had less than 25 students between the two sections, this was feasible. If I had more students and/or more sections, the groups would have to be larger in order for this to be at all feasible.) These meetings took place at least two and a half weeks before they would be presented in class. I had each student present what they were thinking for their project and then have their classmates give them feedback and direction, before I said too much. After seeing where they were going, I tried to verbalize to them what I understood their project to be, and then mapped out the things I would be looking for in grading the assignment. There had to be significant philosophical content and the vast majority of their grade would be based on that content and how well they expressed that.
I was amazed at the ideas that the students had for their final projects. A couple students wanted to write short stories, one wanted to write a fairy tale, a few wanted to do art projects, a couple wanted to do videos of some sort, and there were a handful that wanted to do papers. However, even the students who were doing papers often wanted to do something integrating philosophy with something in their majors.
The students then had at least two weeks to prepare something for a presentation in class the final week of classes, with the final presentation being due at the time of the final a week later. The in-class presentation was designed to give the students an opportunity to get feedback from me and their classmates on their project to help them better prepare for the final submission at the end of the following week. Given the amount of time to present., some students could not play their entire videos or read their entire short story, so for those students, it was really a presentation for which they had to make some editorial decisions. Some students had solid drafts of their projects that they were able to present, while others were conceptually still near where they were at when I met with them a couple weeks earlier. Much like with the portfolio projects, the more one had done at this point, the more feedback they received, and the better the final submission ended up being.
I received some amazing projects from the students that demonstrated to me they were thinking about these things on a deep level. As we spent the last month of the class talking about philosophy of mind, many projects related to issues in that area of philosophy. I have shared (with permission) a couple of the projects with colleagues who were incredibly impressed with the work done.
On the whole, the final project assignment was an excellent way to tie the class together for both me and the students. When coupled with the portfolio project, the students were able to see all the material they had learned, but also find that they had learned how to integrate the material with life at a deeper level. The feedback I received from students on the final project was similar to the feedback I received for the class. The students felt like it was a good amount of work, but the work was worthwhile as they felt they had learned a lot from the process. This assignment, along with others in the class, made the students take responsibility for their own learning, but I was also willing and available to help them clear the high bar I set for them. This required a high time investment on my part. Without a dissertation to work on, it is possible that I could make that investment with more students, but I would need to figure out ways to be more efficient in order to do these assignments if I had a significantly larger number of students.
If you have any questions about any of these assignments, leave a comment or send me an e-mail (joel_schwartz [at] baylor [dot] edu) and I’d be happy to share my handouts with you and/or discuss some of the successes and failures of these assignments in more detail.