Creating a (almost) fail proof Final Project or Paper

One of the banes of my existence has, and forever might be, grades. I had a conversation a few years ago with someone about grades, and I remember the person saying you could define a course in two ways with regards to grades, one where you go for mastery of applying the material, giving everyone equal access to “As”, or one where it is mastery of content, at which point there will be more stratification. This is, of course, overly simplified. But it did empower me to think of other ways of assessing students that would enable the course to be as fail proof as possible. Much of it centers around the Final Project or Paper.

In my department every semester I can inform the chair that I will be meeting for the final exam at the designated time, as required for the University, but we will have a non-traditional format. I’ve been lucky enough that it has always been approved. The results have always been pretty amazing in terms of what it does for the class. I’ve written about the overallcourse design for these courses before, but this will be more about how the final projects come into being.



(for both introduction to media history, theory and media AND media & popular culture)

1. to read scholarly and popular texts critically; 2. to practice constructing and shaping arguments; 3. to find a voice in writing about, creating, and presenting media; 4. to creatively experiment


The first half of the course is always getting the lay of the land. This is usually gauging where the students are, introduction of central concepts (that will be revisited later in the semester), and review of previous courses (if the course has a requisite). The mid-semester check-in (formerly known as midterm) checks to make sure everyone is on the same page. Rather than asking for facts I tend to ask for application of concepts and/or identification of other spaces concepts can be applied. In addition to doing the mid-term, I ask students to identify what they think they’ll want to work on for their Final project or paper. I tell them they need to choose something they will actually enjoy working on, and not something they think I will enjoy because they will be working on this thing for months. I provide them with some examples and guidelines for the project. I encourage them to experiment and try to make media if they haven’t before (since, media course), because the classroom is one of the few spaces they have where if something doesn’t work properly we can control the consequences.


My biggest fear in teaching theory heavy media courses is that students will think they have to show me how much they get theory rather than how much they get the media. As a result, during the second half we revisit and take a deeper look at the concepts we touched on in the first half of the semester. However, instead of just looking at concepts and theories without something in mind I ask that the students think through these concepts and how they apply to a project or paper of their creation, so they are never approaching theory as just theory. On the day the mid-semester check-in is turned in, they fill out a note card where they write the topic they hope to work on, and how they are thinking about executing it (traditional paper? blog? short film? look book? something else? no idea?). We then move into an activity. The most important thing for me when creating in class activities is that all activities in the class are meta-learning moments. I never want to make them do group work for the sake of doing group work. This semester I decided to make them do speed dating for the first time. In addition to it ensuring that everyone in the class actually spoke to their classmates at least one time, it allowed us to think about the role and norms of “dating” in popular culture (this was useful because gender and sexuality were one of the early concepts, and rom-coms, romance novels, and attitudes toward relationships were already in discussion).


Above is the Speed Dating thematic. I am sharing it because the first time I tried to do this, I failed at figuring out what to do after the first circle formation finished talking. We start with two circles, an outer and an inner circle and then move to two smaller circles. In the background a YouTube playlist of all the favorite songs of the participants played in the background (these were collected at the beginning of the course). The playlist and the note cards are “icebreakers” so if someone is shy they have their list and something other than the project to talk about for a moment. The music videos also help change the “feel” of the classroom space. The participants are asked to take their note cards and spend 2-3 minutes with each person (depending on time in the course). In these 2-3 minutes they each need to introduce their idea/interest, why that is their topic, and how they plan to explore it.

These descriptions are brief. Once the time is up the people in the outer circle move counter-clockwise one space until they spoken with everyone. What is really great is by the end of the first circle, they’ve gotten down their description, why they’re interested in it, and what they want to do and why. They then move to the second circle (the people who were in the outer or inner circle with them), so they can speak to everyone in the course. Throughout this experience they record the names of people who have similar projects, or projects they might like to work on.

After everyone has had a chance to speak with everyone else, they are given 5-10Minutes to free mingle with people they might be interested in forming groups with. After speed dating they should have a good sense of what their topic is and how they hope to execute it. They should also have a group if they want to do a group project (papers have to be done individually), and a topic group of people they can check in with, in the event they are doing an individual project.

In addition to helping them define their projects, the speed dating serves a secondary purpose. Throughout the semester students give group presentations. One of the reasons I want them to speak to each other is, as we move to the more theoretical parts of the course, knowing what everyone is doing and/or is interested in allows them to bring illustrative examples for their presentations that are helpful and interesting for people in the course. They never have to approach the dense theory without a good sense of the types of things people might be thinking through it with because everyone has a general view of the landscape of interests/projects of course participants.


Once the students have had a chance to speak with everyone in the course, determined groups, etc, they have four days to a week to create a proposal (depending on the course schedule). The parts of the proposal are as follows:

In my experience the proposals tend to be written with a scope bigger than what can be completed in 6 or so weeks given other work required for the course and the overall course load. The proposal gives me a chance to see the parts that need to be better refined, rethought, or repositioned. I usually end up telling students to think smaller and deeper, and let them know I will help them with this during the workshops.


These are done in groups so the students can meet with their group members and speak with other people in the course about what they are doing to get outside perspectives and feedback. They workshops are designed to mirror things related to the overall topic of the course, like all the activities, so we make mini-media projects (but you need not be limited to this! things like surveys, interviews, posters, pamphlets, or whatever your disciplines norms or topics of study are can be used too).

From the beginning of the course, at least two days are devoted to in class workshops. The first one happens after I’ve had a chance to go over proposals and give feedback. Once they’ve had a day to process feedback the first workshop is designed to help them refine their topic. This year I had them create an advertisement with a pithy catch phrase that restates their thesis statement, and a bit of explanatory text, and an iconic image. This allowed the students to think about the production process of advertisements. It was also a chance for them to make their projects exciting for external audiences.

The second workshop happens towards the end of the semester. The purpose of this workshop is to link the final project to concepts from the course. They are given a worksheet with a concept bank and asked to link their particular project to at least half of the concepts with a brief explanation.

While students are working on their workshop projects, I go around the class and meet with each group or student to check in and see where they are with their projects, to find out if they have any questions or concerns, and to make sure they are on track with the timeline they provided. I do this in class because not everyone can make it to office hours and I want to make sure everyone is on track. I also want to check in to make sure that they are able to link their projects to the course in a meaningful way that pushes their thinking. I give them challenges too, to make their projects a better learning experience that makes them push a bit harder than they might on their own against the concepts and format of their project or paper.

Depending on the course, there might be one or two additional workshops just to make sure people are able to “network” with people in the course to learn things they might need for their projects. If the class is mainly individual projects or papers, I try to add additional workshops so they have a chance to speak through their projects with other people enrolled in the course. I always remind them that their audience for these things shouldn’t be me, but rather, making sense of what they are doing and why to their classmates, because the final audience they will be presenting their work to is each other, and I am just one person.


By the time we reach the final presentation, they should have spoken with me at least two times and gotten feedback from me 3 (proposal, advertisement, course concepts). If the final is very early in the final schedule, the project or paper is due BEFORE the day of the final presentation. If it is toward the end, they can turn in an option draft for feedback with specific questions before the final exam period starts. This is done to ensure that, as the students are stressed out about their finals, the course isn’t a big stressor at this point. Generally, since we’ve checked in throughout, they hopefully shouldn’t be procrastinating for the most part (though there are always a few). At the very least, even if they are waiting until the last minute, they know what they are doing and why, and how what they are doing is related to the course.

When we meet for the final the students share their projects or papers (one of the rules for projects is that the project has to be a stand alone piece that makes sense without explanation. It forces the student to edit it like they would a paper). However, since we are together for the final, they need to explain some of the connections between their projects or papers course concepts. By the time we make it to the final, they have their position down. It is reflected in their projects and papers. And it is wonderful. What ends up happening on the last day is, rather than them cramming to take in all the concepts and references for the course, we meet and they show each other what the course was about. It ends up being a really big student led review of the course. Student work and effort are centered. And, instead of cramming a bunch of information for an exam and forgetting it, they leave with something they can put in a portfolio, or a new skill (like video or audio editing, etc.), and an experience that makes the concepts “real” in a way a paper exam cannot. And, because the projects tend to be really fantastic, they will also remember their favorite project from another person or group, again, reinforcing learning so that it can remain meaningful.


The last thing done as a student in the course is optional. If someone’s online participation (blog posts) grade is low because they haven’t done all their posts, or if they need/want extra credit, they are able to write a response post to projects from the final presentations. These allow them to give feedback to each other after they’ve had some time to think. The posts give me a chance to check in one last time to see how the students understood the course.


So far it hasn’t failed. If a student doesn’t pass their final project, it is generally because they simply did not participate or didn’t complete the project. Because we spend so much time in class working on the projects, this is extremely rare. In terms of how the students perceive it, after the presentations on the final day I’ve students tell me how helpful the process of the course was in helping them with their other courses that were more theory focused. I take that to be a good thing. One of the other things the students remark on, especially in the blog posts, is how, despite being so different in terms of execution and topics, the themes that we covered in course are evident in everyones work, usually in really fun and interesting ways the student hadn’t thought of (they of course explain what the new and interesting ways are and how they are different from how they were thinking about things).

And then, I get permission from the students who did their work on public platforms to share their work more widely. I give them the option to opt out. Every end of semester on twitter I share their work, and, I say genuinely at the end of every semester, I really love giving finals. I learn so much from my students. Just like their classmates, each year my students show me new ways to understand and see theory, and they give me a glimpse of what was happening in their mind as we went through the course.

One response to “Creating a (almost) fail proof Final Project or Paper”

  1. […] When we enter the academy we are surrounded by intellectually curious peers who have done reading and writing and reflecting and speaking. They’ve had the privilege to have the time to do so. Not everyone lives that life though, and not everyone wants to (and that is fine). Students not being able or not wanting to do these things doesn’t mean they’re stupid… for me, when I teach, it just means I need to figure out what tools I need to give them so they can teach me that thing that I don’t know as a teacher. I need my students to teach me how they think, which is why I created an almost fail proof final. […]

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