Supervising Independent Student Projects
Have you ever been asked to supervise a(n) independent reading, independent study, honors thesis, senior thesis, or SURG/iSURG project? These types of student-initiated, faculty-supervised projects allow students to explore areas of interest in depth, gain independence working in a scholarly or artistic area, and work closely with an expert in the field (i.e., you). They can be deeply fulfilling for both students and faculty. However, without appropriate thought, structure, and supervision, they can also go badly, leading to frustration on both sides.
To ensure a positive outcome, consider these questions before you begin:
Is the student ready for this level of independence?
- Does the student have the necessary metacognitive skills? Can she accurately assess her own skills? Does she seem to reflect on how she works and learns? Does she make adjustments where appropriate?
- Does the student have the necessary information literacy skills? Can she do library and Internet research effectively, finding relevant sources and evaluating them according to appropriate criteria?
- Does the student have good time management skills? Is she organized? Does she remember appointments? Meet deadlines? Seem on top of the various demands on her time?
- Can the student incorporate feedback effectively? Does she seem eager to learn? Does her work improve on the basis of feedback given?
- Is the student independent? Does she seem capable of working well on her own? Can she function well with minimal supervision, accomplishing significant work between meetings with you?
- Does the student’s schedule make the project reasonable? Has she factored the time required for this project into her schedule? Is the timeframe realistic?
If you had the student in one of your courses, think about the student’s behavior in class (e.g., her attendance, ability to meet deadlines, receptivity to feedback.) You may already know enough to answer these questions. If not, consider asking the student to fill out a short questionnaire (.docx) to assess some of the issues above.
Does the student have the appropriate attitude and motivations?
- Does the student have a good attitude? Does he seem open-minded, flexible, and hardworking? Are any attitude issues causing you concern?
- What are the student’s motivations? Does he seem genuinely interested in the project – or is he primarily interested in adding a line to his resume? Does se really want to work with you, or would any faculty supervisor do?
Does the student have the necessary knowledge and skills?
- What domain-specific skills and knowledge should the student have going into the project? E.g., specific methodological skills, experience in a particular artistic medium, knowledge of the relevant literature.
- What domain-general knowledge and skills should the student have? E.g., experience with research, writing, and oral communication.
- Declining the project
- Deferring the project until the student has taken a course or two in the area.
- Directing the student to outside resources (readings, an on-line tutorial) to fill some or all the gaps.
- Working with the student to get him or her ready.
- Modifying the scope or objectives of the project.
Are you willing and able to commit to the project?
- Am I the right faculty member to supervise, or is there someone else with more applicable expertise?
- What time do I reasonably have to give? Is that time sufficient given what this particular student needs?
- Can I really commit to this, given the other demands on my time?
What is a realistic scope for the project?
You might begin by asking the student about his goals for the project. What questions does he want to answer? What skills does he want to develop? Help the student to articulate his learning objectives. For example, some objectives for an independent project might be for students to be able to...
- collect and analyze user data to inform a design solution.
- offer a set of recommendations to improve an urban afterschool program.
At the end of the project (or even at various points along the way) consider asking your student to reflect in writing about his progress in relation to the objectives he has set. Bear in mind that the goals may shift somewhat as the student engages with the project, refines his research question, encounters unanticipated obstacles, etc.
What stages and “deliverables” will the project involve?
Determine what the final product will be: Paper? Oral presentation? Exhibit? Database? Poster presentation? Define all the relevant parameters to the extent that you can, e.g., page length, format, etc. If some of these parameters are set by outside entities (e.g., Meeting of the Minds), make sure the student finds them out in advance and shares them with you.
Work backwards from the final product to determine appropriate interim deadlines and deliverables. For a research project, deliverables might consist of deadlines for a project proposal or problem statement, preliminary bibliography, literature review, first draft, etc. For a creative project, it might consist of preliminary sketches, prototypes, process journals, etc.
How and when can you provide useful feedback?
What will be your role? Your student’s role?
- How often will you and the student communicate?
- Whose responsibility will it be to initiate this communication?
- How often will you meet?
- Whose responsibility will it be to set up meetings?
- Whose responsibility will it be to develop an action plan?
- Who will define interim deliverables and set deadlines?
- What should the student do to prepare for meetings with you?
- What should you do?
After creating a contract, decide with your student what should happen if the terms of the contract are not met. If the student fails to uphold his/her end, will you resign as project supervisor? If so, does the student understand the implications of losing the units? Also, what will you do if, for some reason, you cannot meet the terms of the contract?
What practical advice can you provide?
What grading criteria will you use to evaluate the student’s work?
Students may assume they’ll get an "A for effort" on independent studies or projects, so make sure they are fully aware of your grading criteria in advance. Determine the performance criteria you will use to evaluate the project and then communicate it clearly to the student. Depending on your goals, it may be appropriate to define performance criteria both for the product (e.g., strength of argument, accuracy and diversity of evidence, elegance of design) and for the process (e.g., student’s ability to communicate with you clearly and regularly, meet deadlines, seek help appropriately).
Also, consider what sort of grading schema you want to use: letter grades or Pass/Fail? What are the circumstances under which you would assign an Incomplete? Make sure the student thinks through the implications of an Incomplete or low grade for their academic standing, financial aid status, and/or immigration status.
Supervising independent student projects have the potential to make a deep, positive impression on students, and to forget lasting bonds between faculty and students. Please contact us if you’d like to talk about your experiences supervising student projects, to work together to tailor any of these strategies to your own context, or to share approaches and materials that have worked for you!