Why do a project as part of your university study?
Taking on a project can be one of the most memorable parts of studying. Tim Coughlan explains how they can help learners…
Projects are common in university teaching, but they are different from the types of study that students experience regularly. Most of us are more used to learning about a particular subject or skill, with teaching that is designed to help you understand this subject in a very guided way. However, a project encourages you to make decisions about the direction to take, and to work independently. By putting some of the control in your hands, we create a different study experience and a different way to learn some very valuable skills. But it can take some getting used to.
Projects take different forms. You will probably do some small projects as an assignment in a module, either on your own, or working together with your fellow students. You might also have had some small project activities at school, because it isn’t just universities that think it is a useful way to learn. At the other end of the scale, a doctorate in research, such as a PhD or EdD, is a really large project taking several years. It should make you an expert in your specialist area.
In between these, there is often a project module taken in the final stages of an undergraduate degree. This might be referred to in some places as a ‘Final Year Project’, but at The Open University the timing is quite flexible. We focus on this type of project here, although some of what is said can apply to all sorts of projects.
Why do a project like this?
A project means learning by doing: A lot of study involves ‘assimilating’ information, such as taking in ideas or remembering facts by reading course materials. This is really important because we need a basic understanding of any subject to work with. However a project is a chance to immerse yourself in a more ‘active learning’ experience. It will include activities such as planning, researching, creating, thinking critically, building, testing, and reporting. All these things may seem a bit far away when you are learning through assimilating information, but the things you have learnt can then come to life in a project.
Project planning and management skills are essential: Whatever your goals are, experiencing the process of planning, conducting, and reporting on a large project will help you. Project management skills are a key learning outcome. These skills are required for professional or managerial jobs, and they can also help you get through any large project in your life. You are learning to think systematically about how to make something substantial go from an idea to a reality. That has so many applications beyond your study.
A project can be a very valuable showcase of your abilities: Because it happens towards the end of the course, you will be applying the knowledge and skills you have learnt beforehand to your project. What you do can then be used to show that you are capable of independently completing a complicated piece of work requiring planning and skill. Explaining or showing this to people when applying for jobs could really make you stand out.
You aren’t doing it alone: Although the project is led by you, and you will have important choices to make, you will be guided along the way by a tutor or supervisor. You will get feedback on whether your ideas and plans are appropriate. During the project, the tutor can provide advice if something unexpected happens, or if you realise that the direction may need to change slightly. Sometimes it is just important to have someone to report progress to. The difference from other types of study is that you are making more of the decisions, but there is still a structure to support you. After taking the course, you should feel comfortable to plan and manage projects in the future.
How can you get the most out of your project?
Think about and discuss your proposal as early as possible: The project proposal stage is really important. You might have one idea for a project that you really want to do, but you should make sure to discuss it with people and check that it is suitable. Alternatively, it can work well to come up with a few different ideas for projects and then figure out, with your tutor, which you should follow. Often the original idea needs refining.
Be ambitious but realistic: You could have a very ambitious idea for a project, but what can you really achieve in the time available? You should push yourself to apply the skills you have learnt, and to develop your knowledge further. But be careful not to just assume that you can learn a whole new field of knowledge during the project. Projects often start out too ambitious for the time available and this can cause problems later. Or sometimes people want to do a project in an area where they don’t have the basic skills needed. Again, your tutor or supervisor can help you to work through this to get to a suitable level of ambition.
Stay focused on the plan and adapt it if necessary: Unexpected things often happen. You may not have realised how difficult a particular task was, or the people or resources you were relying on are suddenly not available. Things might happen in your life that cause delays. While it is important to have a plan from the start, it is also important to return to it regularly and think about whether the plan needs to be changed due to circumstances. Changing the plan isn’t something to do without a lot of thought, but it can be crucial to reaching a good outcome.
Doing a project like this isn’t easy, but it often one of the most memorable experiences a student has. Try to make the most of it!
Tim Coughlan is a Lecturer in the Institute of Educational Technology at The Open University. This article was previously published in October 2017 on OpenLearn. You should subscribe to our newsletter for more free courses, articles, games and videos.