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Research Project-Based Undergraduate Course and Capstone Experiences: Strategies that Work

 

November 18-19, 2011
University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras and University of the Sacred Heart
San Juan Puerto Rico

Judith Simons Gold , Marygrove College

Theodora P. Williams , Marygrove College

Introduction

At Marygrove College, students in every discipline are required to complete a senior research seminar experience. In the business and computer information systems disciplines, students are immersed in an outcomes-based capstone experience that is required at the end of their undergraduate degree program. These research-project based seminars encourage active learning, improved information literacy, and effective visual, oral, and written communication. If pedagogy is considered the sum total of how professors teach, and content refers to how they teach, an important question for faculty: why do they teach in the manner that they do?

At Marygrove, the answer lies in our core values simply stated: compassion, commitment, and competency. These values are the underpinning for the college’s strategic vision—to educate traditional and non-traditional leaders who are able to think critically and to solve problems in order to be agents of change in their communities (Marygrove College Strategic Vision Statement, 2008). In these capstone courses and senior seminars, the emphasis is on information literacy. In collaboration with library staff, professors pursue the goal of helping students become astute decision makers and discerning consumers of information. This is accomplished through facilitation or the “guide on the side” model, rather than the more traditional model of lecture mode or “sage on the stage.” Perhaps what is most noteworthy about these senior seminars are the key attributes of the model:

  • The change of the balance of power in the classroom and the role of moderator;
  • The function of content and current course content delivery systems; and
  • The purpose and processes of assessment within these courses.

These attributes are significant when considering the millennial students, which, according to the Aslanian Group Undergraduate profiles, describe the millennial adult undergraduate population as being willing to experiment with either hybrid or on-line classes and who overwhelmingly want to take their courses on their own time as opposed to on a fixed time schedule with the professor and other students. (Aslanian Group, 2006)

Research indicates that the most effective education occurs when students are active participants in their own learning and when the learning transcends the heretofore accepted practices of just exams and term papers. This thinking is the impetus for the course design for these capstone courses which:

  • Produce a research-based product;
  • Have specific modules;
  • Provide opportunities for both in-class and online discussions; and
  • Require oral and written presentations as a method of assessment.

Research-Based Product

Both the business and the computer information systems senior seminars include case studies for students to analyze and critique. In the business seminar, these assignments result in reading reports which are based on readings from the current business press (e.g., Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg Business Week, or Harvard Business Review). In the computer information systems seminar, these textbook case studies are based on real world organizations. Students are assigned to analyze and to develop problem-solving recommendations for each case study.

Internet assignments provide research opportunities for students to explore other websites and to share those findings with their classmates by posting their critiques in forums on the course management system site. Each seminar culminates with a research project which is submitted at the end of the course.

Specific Modules

In the computer information systems senior seminar, students are required to work independently to produce specific modules, which taken together, produce the total research project. Sample modules would include identification of an organization’s mission statement, values statements, and an organization chart for the selected firm. Another example of a specific module would be the presentation of a cost benefit analysis of identified hardware and software requirements.

In the business senior seminar, there are distinct phases in the conduct of the course: the exploratory or research phase; the writing phase; and the oral presentation phase.

Once a research topic has been identified, the student is guided to develop a body of research around the self-selected topic. In the writing phase, students work independently with one-on-one meetings with the facilitator or professor to monitor progress. A writer’s workshop is conducted where students may share work (peer review), and discuss writing and resources difficulties, both positive and negative. The oral presentation is a 20-25 minute presentation with a Power Point slide presentation to showcase student work and highlight research findings.

Development of the specific modules or phases relies heavily on the college’s course management system for student discussion, posting of reports, and general sharing of information. The use of this technology results in a high level of student interaction, particularly for the research and written work done outside of class.

Oral and Written Presentations

The research project that is produced for the business senior seminar is a fifteen-page appropriately annotated paper. The second requirement is an oral presentation.

The research produced for the computer information systems senior seminar differs slightly in that the requirement is a portfolio containing the fourteen modules students are required to develop about an organizational problem that they have chosen to analyze in order to develop a systems solution, complete with hardware and software needs.

Both courses require an oral presentation by each student at the end of the term to a community of learners—classmates and invited guests (other faculty, other undergraduate students who are looking forward to taking the class when they are further along in their degree program). For these presentations, the student presenters are encouraged to dress professionally as they would for an important presentation to an employer or a panel of investors.

Rubrics

In this hybrid format environment, approximately 40% of the time is spent in traditional class meetings, while 60% is spent working independently online or outside the classroom). Prompt and frequent feedback is crucial. Rubrics are an essential method of helping students to grasp the assessment criteria that is used to grade their work. This type of assessment is considered a better metric to gauge student growth and success in this course setting than more traditional tests and quizzes.

These rubrics are discussed with the students; feedback is offered at critical milestones throughout the course. Because both seminars are student centered, the rubrics used as assessment tools are no less so. In the Business seminars, feedback is provided in the rating categories of exemplary, good quality, acceptable and unacceptable. For example, feedback criteria would focus on whether the research paper was logically organized, considering the various elements of the paper (introduction, focus of the research, appropriate paragraphing, and paragraph transitioning). Points are assigned to the rating categories. For the oral presentations, rubrics address areas of content and process, considering factors such as explanation of reasons for the conclusion of content and delivery quality.

In the computer information systems seminar,

  • feedback is provided on each module in the areas of excellent, average or poor, with appropriate comments.
  • critique of the oral presentation uses a scaled rubric that considers presentation, organization of material, and delivery (eye contact, use of notes, etc.).

For both seminars, adherence to time allotments is stressed. Respect for this element of the presentation is one of the metrics addressed in the rubrics. This provides students with time-management skills while simulating a project presentation in the real world.

Conclusion

These capstone courses are designed to improve information literacy and enhance communication skills building upon knowledge, skills, and abilities the students have gained throughout their undergraduate careers. Using a modular or phased approach, professors function as guides, facilitating discussion, providing feedback, and inviting students to engage with their professor and their peers to develop a cohesive body of research. Teaching these courses affords insights into engaging the millennial student in new and innovative ways that are exciting for the student and the facilitator because of the learning outcomes that are achieved as well as student-faculty and student-student interaction that occurs.

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