Media, Technology, and Education
CurriculumEngagementGeneral EducationHigh Impact PracticesInnovative CurriculumIntegrated ClustersProject-based LearningWicked Problems

Students’ Signature Work: Conference Debrief

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and the Davis Educational Foundation sponsored a one day institute in Boston this weekend for institutions of higher education who want to learn more about “signature work.”

What is signature work? Here’s what AAC&U says:

In Signature Work, a student uses his or her cumulative learning to pursue a significant project related to a problem she or he defines. In the project conducted throughout at least one semester, the student takes the lead and produces work that expresses insights and learning gained from the inquiry and demonstrates the skills and knowledge she or he has acquired. Faculty and mentors provide support and guidance.

Signature Work might be pursued in a capstone course or in research conducted across thematically linked courses, or in another field-based activity or internship. It might include practicums, community service, or other experiential learning. It always should include substantial writing, multiple kinds of reflection on learning, and visible results.

This definition of signature work pretty accurately describes the opportunities for students that we at Plymouth State University are trying to create through the cluster initiative. We applied to be part of this free institute, proposing to work on the fourth of President Birx’s Four Tools of Clusters–the General Education capstone experience. Our team was comprised of Gail Mears (the Dean currently responsible for the General Education program), Elisabeth Johnston and Rebecca Noel (two members of the capstone task force), and me (incoming Coordinator of General Education, a new position).

In the morning, we divided ourselves up to attend four of the concurrent sessions in each of two time slots. We convened over lunch to talk about what we learned during those sessions. In the afternoon, we first attended a keynote presentation and then worked on our proposed task (the capstone) as a team with an advisor from an institution that has already been engaging their students in signature work. For me, the afternoon was very helpful.

The keynote was given by Rick Vaz, Director of the recently created Center for Project-Based Learning at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). Even though the Center was only recently created, WPI has been engaging their students in project-based learning for nearly 50 years. Rick told us the story of how projects became central to their undergraduate curriculum and then talked about the findings of a large alumni study that WPI recently completed. The project-based curriculum is described on the WPI web site:

The curriculum features integrative project work across four years, both in the major and in general education, in classrooms, and around the globe at our more than 40 project centers. Under the Plan, students work closely with faculty and each other to develop solutions to real-world problems in their own communities and in communities around the globe. Participating in team and individual research settings, students tackle authentic, open-ended projects under faculty guidance.

Rick explained that many courses at WPI are team taught with both an engineering faculty member and a humanities faculty member. One of the main goals of their project-based curriculum (which they call the WPI Plan–by the way, I’m putting a lot of links in here but I think the one to the WPI Plan is the most interesting) is for students to develop the skills that employers say are most important to them in hiring, skills that a humanities-based education provides excellent opportunities to develop, skills that I’ve written about before. I found the particular emphasis on “Learn How to Learn” to be most exciting because we’ve been talking for a long time at PSU at getting students to “own” their education and one of the Habits of Mind that we have said is important to us is self-regulated learning. The other particular skills that WPI focuses on are: “learn to achieve collaboratively, think creatively, and better communicate your ideas.” These skills are all embedded in PSU’s Habits of Mind. So even though WPI is a different kind of institution than PSU, I think we can learn a lot from them.

A few years ago, WPI distributed a survey to 10,000 of their alums to determine the impact that project-based learning has had on their lives. They received completed surveys from over 2,500 of their alumni (which is a very impressive return rate!). The results were overwhelmingly positive in that the alums attribute much of their post-graduate success to having engaged in these undergraduate projects. Rick presented a lot of different statistical analyses that I don’t have access to at the moment. But no matter how they looked at the responses, it was clear that the focus on project-based learning throughout the undergraduate curriculum is a good thing.

WPI found that two groups of people benefited the most from the projects: women and those who engaged in projects at off-campus sites. These two groups reported bigger benefits from their project participation than did other groups. WPI then drilled down to determine the reasons that some people didn’t do project work off-campus. Not surprisingly, cost was cited as the number one reason. To remove this obstacle to off-campus project work, WPI did some fundraising to develop a fund to allow them to give every student a $5,000 grant for their project work. As a result, students can engage in their project work wherever they like, regardless of their personal resources. This equity of access to these high-impact experiences was something Rick emphasized.

After Rick’s keynote, the four of us on PSU’s team met with faculty from the University of Southern Maine to talk about our project of revising the Integrated Connection course to act as a project-based capstone for the General Education program. They asked us four questions to start our discussion. 1. Where are you now? 2. What obstacles are you facing? 3. What opportunities exist? 4. What are your learning outcomes? The conversation was a good one.

A discussion point that resonated with me was that this capstone course is one of the ways that we ensure that EVERY student has the opportunity to engage in high impact experiences multiple times throughout their time at PSU. I’ve written before that I think that we have always been good at providing high impact experiences for some of our students. But the cluster initiative is exciting precisely because it challenges us to provide multiple high impact experiences for ALL of our students.

A major revelation from the institute is that there are a lot of colleges and universities interested in doing this kind of work. There were 8 institutions at the institute that have already embarked on providing opportunities for student signature work. These 8 acted as advisors for the rest of us. And there were 40 institutions attending to learn more about signature work and its relationship to what we’re trying to do on our campuses. This shows that doing this kind of work is not out of the mainstream. I think that what sets PSU apart is that we are also trying to rearrange our organizational structure to make doing this kind of work (and maybe some more radical things?) easier. More about that in a future post.

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.

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