Teaching Anthropological Demography through Project- and Service-Based Learning: Case Study of the Symonds Street Cemetery Project

  • Heather Tiffany Battles University of Auckland


The Symonds Street Cemetery Project was initially suggested by Auckland Council, who desired to learn more about this first-generation colonial urban cemetery in Auckland, New Zealand. Undergraduate students enrolled in an anthropological demography course worked in groups to transcribe demographic information from existing gravestones. The undergraduates’ assignment was to develop a demographic profile of one denominational section, comparing results from their transcriptions with those based on a database of known burials and considering issues of representativeness and preservation. The postgraduates developed their own original research questions. The final transcribed data and student papers were given to Auckland Council for their records and others’ use. The postgraduate students also presented their findings in a public forum. The relatively large enrolment necessitated compromises in the project-based learning model. This led to implementation of a hybrid approach employing structural scaffolding, which allowed for traditional content delivery and project-based active learning. Observed benefits were consistent with the literature on fieldwork and service learning in anthropology and related disciplines, such as increased interest and motivation associated with working with ‘real’ data with a purpose beyond their own learning and assessment. The project thus accomplished specific pedagogical goals related to course content while developing students’ transferable skills and including them in the process of community engagement as contributors to local heritage knowledge and preservation. However, provision of sufficient instructor support was identified as a challenge. I suggest that more attention to hybrid teaching approaches to PBL is needed, particularly from anthropology and in the form of service learning in a greater variety of contexts.

Developing Teaching: Reports and Reflections