Life Design

Translating Coursework into Research Projects Ideas

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University courses can spark an interest in students about various topics. These courses can also be a resource when brainstorming possible research projects. This post offers an example of a life design activity that helped students translate their past coursework into potential research project ideas.


I am doing a series of life design workshops for a Research Design course aimed at 3rd-year Environmental Science and Studies majors. In their 4th year, they must execute a senior capstone research project and they begin the proposals for their project in the spring of their 3rd year.

Many students do not know where to start when it comes to conceiving a research project. I was brought in to do a few life design activities to help the research design process (e.g., Speed Dating Activity for Initial Research Ideation).

Life Design Activity to Translate Courses into Research Project Ideas

As homework for the class activity, students were asked to brainstorm 3 university classes that they found interesting. The 3 classes formed the basis of reflection for the life design activity.

Students were given the following worksheet to guide the activity (PDF). There is the space for an ‘Other’ experience that they would like to reflect on through this exercise.

The first row of boxes focused on reflecting on the courses themselves. The second and third row of boxes focused on potential research project ideas and how they might fit core aspects of the student (skills & abilities, interests, work/life values, impact).

Timetable for Activity (45 – 50 minutes)
  1. Write in the titles of 3 courses that interested you. (30 seconds – 1 minute)
  2. Quietly brainstorm and answer for the following questions about the first course (3 minutes):
    1. What interested you about it?
    2. What do you want to learn more about?
    3. What did you enjoy about it?
  3. Repeat the previous step for the second course (3 minutes) and third course and/or other (3 minutes)
  4. Find a partner and discuss your reflections about all the courses (10 minutes)
  5. Transcribe your 6 main skills/abilities/interests from the Life Design Coordinate Plane Activity [modified version] & your 6 main work/life values and desired impact in the smaller boxes (1 minute)
  6. Find another partner and discuss how aspects of the 1st course could translate into a project that aligns with your skills/abilities/interest while jotting notes in the second row of multiple boxes (6 minutes)
  7. Quietly brainstorm how a research project inspired by the first course aligns with your work/life values and impact you want to have (1 minute)
  8. Repeat the previous two steps for Course 2 & Course 3 + ‘Other’ with new partners each time. (7 minutes + 10 minutes).
  9. Allow time for a [quick] debrief at the end (2 minutes+)

Closing Thoughts

This activity builds in ample time for discussion. It works well in the context of a course or group in which group members have a rapport with one another and meet regularly.

This activity built off of other life design activities (See Life Design Coordinate Plane and Speed Dating Activity for Initial Research Ideation). It could be modified as a stand-alone activity, but I would recommend having a warm-up activity focused on personal reflection that tied into the exercise here.

The worksheet offered students a tangible output of their brainstorming. This is especially important if they don’t have a dedicated plan for project ideation in their own note-taking system. It can easily be modified, transformed, and reimagined.

Coursework can be a powerful tool to help brainstorm possible research projects. It’s important to offer space to reflect on experiences in courses and guidance when translating them into research projects.

How do you see coursework impacting research projects for students? Let me know in the comments.

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