Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College

The Visual Term Paper

Student-generated podcasts, video podcasts, and virtual exhibitions
Art History 398-B02: Africa, Museums and the Politics of Representation
Leah N. Niederstadt

What did she do?

Given the high enrollment of Studio Art majors in her Introduction to museum studies courses, Leah Niederstadt wanted to develop assignments that drew on students' varied strengths while still developing skills in critical analysis, oral presentation, and writing -- without resorting to the usual term paper.

Leah developed a semester-long project which offered students the opportunity to develop a project that was not a research paper; options included a podcast, an online exhibition, an exhibition proposal and/or an installation.

And why did she do that?

The primary aim was to help students develop their critical analysis, reading and writing skills, but using a format that played to their strengths as individual learners and/or challenged them to engage with various forms of technology.

For example, one student chose to create a video podcast that combined her interest in contemporary art with digital filmmaking. Another chose to combine her experience with exhibition design and installation with an audio podcast, a technology she had not tried before.

A final aim was for students to demonstrate their understanding and analysis of course readings, lectures and site visits.

What was the assignment?

Importantly, students were free to choose their own research topic (as long as it related to Africa and museums/like institutions), which increased their "buy-in", as they were not forced to research a topic in which they had no interest.

The following was the assignment as given to students:

Research Project (50%):

Students will choose a final research project in consultation with me. Some possible options include:

  • A research paper of fifteen (15) pages
  • A podcast for an already existing museum exhibition in the Boston/Providence area
  • An exhibition proposal (for a museum/like institution or for online)

Each project must include a significant writing component, must require original research, and must focus on a topic related to the focus of this class.

In order to ensure that you do NOT leave all of the work for your final research project until the last minute, you will earn points for this project throughout the term.

  • Initial meeting with me to discuss your ideas = 5%. Week Four
  • Annotated bibliography after preliminary research = 10%. Week Seven
  • Draft of your project = 15%. Week Ten
  • Final research project = 20%. Week Fourteen
  • In-class presentation of your final research project = +/-. Week Fifteen

And did it work?

Twelve of the fourteen students chose to explore the non-research paper option, and nine involved multimedia: five online exhibitions, three audio podcasts (one of which accompanied an installation set up in the Watson Fine Arts Building) and a video podcast.

Overall, Leah was extremely impressed with the quality of the students' research projects, including their use of technology, and with their enthusiasm and hard work, which was clearly evident. Their final products also demonstrated that they had learned a great deal in terms of course content and of their use of technology.

All of them also showed improvement in their critical analysis, reading and writing skills. In particular, she noted a marked improvement in the work of students she had taught the previous semester,when the only option was a traditional research paper.

What didn't work, or could have been done better?

When she assigned the project, Leah herself did not then know how to create an online exhibition or podcast. While her liaison and librarian were always willing to help, she feels that she should have learned the technology in order to provide advice and help her students as well as to have a better sense of the amount of time and effort required to complete such projects.

Also, students were required to submit a draft of their written text, but not the "technical side" of their projects. As a result, many of them left creating the technical aspects of their project until the very end.

Did the students enjoy it?

The verbal feedback from the students was all positive.

Those who had taken the Introduction to Museum Studies course with Leah definitely appreciated the opportunity to conduct a different kind of research project than a traditional research paper. All eight of these students conducted projects that went beyond a "pure" research paper.

In a few instances, Leah thinks that students' excitement over using technology prompted them to work harder and to produce higher quality research. One student commented that she had "never worked so hard on an assignment in my life but I loved it!"

Leah's "Lessons Learned" for running this kind of assignment

  • Familiarize yourself with the technologies you assign
    By understanding the technologies, you will know the time involved in completing the project, understand the appropriate criteria for marking, and be able to more fully support your students in their work
  • Consider providing the students with a choice of final format and/or of topic
    This may not be possible in all cases, but offering these choices engages the students'  interest, plays to their strengths, and/or challenges them to learn a new technology (or develop their skills in one they already knew)
  • Break the project down into various steps
    Require parts of the assignment to be submitted throughout the semester (including the technical aspects of the assignment), which keeps the students from leaving the entire project until the very end.

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