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Turning projects into student enquiries

Ideas to get more out of projects, and to extend their usage across a degree programme

Cloud created by:

Peter Kahn
22 July 2009

Projects and dissertations are typically employed in the final stages of a degree programme to help students master a body of specialist knowledge, to enable students to make connections within a body of knowledge to which they have already been introduced, or to provide them with an opportunity to carry out work more independently and to develop transferable skills. But in practice it can be easy for the tutor to direct the enquiry, telling the student what to investigate and how to carry it out.

There are however plenty of reasons why one might want to use project work at an earlier stage in the degree programme, allowing one also to use projects to achieve a wider range of learning outcomes:

  • A specific problem or issue can be employed to illustrate the internal logic of the discipline (see Kahn and Walsh, 2006, p32-33) or to develop a fundamental skill or process of thought; this provides a way to help use projects and dissertations at an early point in a degree programme. We can, for instance, seek to expose the patterns of thought that students need to grasp if they are to make sense of their discipline. Palmer (1998) calls this teaching from the microcosm.
  • It is also important to consider our students’ interest and enjoyment in their learning, given that this is now a major area of concern within higher education. Are you satisfied with the level of your student’s motivation? Perhaps you might consider how you came to enjoy your own subject? It’s quite possible that it is research, and the discovery of new ideas, that is the driving element in your own interest in the subject. The challenge then is to begin to replicate this experience for your students.

But to achieve such outcomes across a degree programme will also require carefully designed enquiries to ensure that it is not the tutor who determines the direction of the enquiry, and is required to give extensive advice during the project. We explore here a number of lessons from enquiry based learning (EBL) in order to widen the potential use of projects.

Designing the enquiry

Scope of the enquiry – The topic needs to be sufficiently open-ended to give scope for students to set the direction of the enquiry.

Level of the enquiry – The level is determined primarily by the accessibility of the techniques that will be used during the enquiry and the nature of the background knowledge (of content) that is required to complete the enquiry within the given time-frame. This directly affects the extent to which a student will be able to direct the enquiry. The level at which the enquiry is set relates also to how much support is available.

Staging the enquiry – The approach involves the student taking responsibility for the key stages of the project: possibly selecting the topic and setting a research question, locating appropriate resources and identifying relevant knowledge, determining the lines of enquiry, choosing appropriate methods and techniques and deciding the basis for a synthesis. When using projects at an earlier stage of a degree programme, it becomes increasingly important to stage the enquiry for the students. Problem-based learning works well in part because it builds in a clear series of stages into the enquiry.

Practical constraints – Students work with limitations on their time, scheduling, access to information and resources. Consider how you might be able to ameliorate some of these constraints.

Support from others

Facilitator: The aim is to avoid a tutor telling the students what approach they should take, but there is still usually a role for facilitation. The strategy instead is to question the student(s), and to help them make choices.

Peers: Students can offer significant support to each other, providing a social context in which learning can occur.

Others: It may also be possible to link the student to other people in carrying out their enquiry.

Personal capacity to direct a project

Students need to the appropriate capacities in order to direct a substantive project/dissertation, whether in managing the process, organising their time, working with others or reviewing and adapting their approach to the project.


One approach is simply to require a completed project report or dissertation. However, assessment might also be used to support the underlying process of enquiry. Consider using assessment to:

  • Stage the process
  • Emphasise desired aspects of the project
  • Encourage interaction between students.


 Which conception of teaching do you effectively hold in relation to your project or dissertation work?  

  • Information-focused: teaching by telling the students what they need to do or know.
  • Process-focused: teaching by creating an environment in which students can learn, and setting up appropriate tasks for them to carry out.


Edelson D C, Gordin D N and Pea R D (1999) Addressing the challenges of inquiry based learning through technology and curriculum design, Journal of the Learning Sciences, 8, pp 391-450
Kahn P E and Walsh L (2006) Developing your teaching, London: Routledge
Palmer P (1998) Courage to teach, San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass
Kahn P E and O’Rourke K (2004) Guide to Curriculum Design: Enquiry-Based Learning, Higher Education Academy, York 
Winter R (2003) Contextualising the patchwork text, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 40, 2, pp 112-122


Contact details: Peter Kahn, University of Liverpool

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