The Assignments Students Remember for Years

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The recent book The Meaningful Writing Project: Learning, Teaching, and Writing in Higher Education (Utah State University Press, 2016) is an exemplary work of pedagogical scholarship for Michele Eodice, Anne Ellen Geller, and Neal Lerner’s focus, for their methodology, and for their findings.

These three scholars wanted to know what makes a writing project meaningful for students. I’m inspired and encouraged by this focus. Of course, we might guess that students will learn more and produce higher quality work through assignments they find meaningful. But writing quality and learning gains aside, as important as those are, these scholars begin from assumption that it matters, in and of itself, for students to experience their schoolwork as meaningful.

The methodology of the study also shows respect for student experience. The scholars gathered survey data from 707 college seniors at three universities and from 160 of those students’ professors and then, along with undergraduates recruited to help with the research, interviewed 27 of those students and 60 of those faculty. They asked the students to think back over their college experience and describe a writing project that they found meaningful; they asked the faculty, who had been named by the students as having assigned the meaningful writing projects, what they think made their students find their assignments so meaningful.

Pretty good so far. But what they did next is what’s most impressive: Through video conferencing, the scholars met for an hour or two every week for about year to work through and code all of that data together. The scholars describe this as “living with our data” (13). They gave hours upon hours of careful, deliberate attention to what students (as well as faculty) had to say about their experiences. That’s a striking example for all of us, even if we cannot follow suit to quite the same degree.

What did they find? Well, to begin with, the meaningful writing projects the students recalled, in some cases years after the fact, came from a wide range of academic contexts: from general education courses as well as courses in the major, from a public university and private universities, from large courses and small courses, from STEM courses and social science courses and humanities courses, with part-time students and full-time students, with monolingual students and multilingual students, and so on. It’s good news that we can’t rule out that students might do meaningful writing in our courses simply because of those kinds of factors, which usually fall outside of our control.

With all the great diversity, though, there were three commonalities that emerged, which are things we might have a great deal of influence over through the way we teach. Eodice, Geller, and Lerner write:

Projects deemed meaningful by over seven hundred students invite them to

  • tap into the power of personal connection;
  • see what they’re writing as applicable, relevant, real world, and connected to their future selves;
  • immerse themselves in what they’re thinking, writing, and researching, including engagement in the process of writing. (108-09)

As a teacher, I want to apply these principles to the writing projects I give students, of course. And I think that can do that, at least in part, by implementing a couple of the suggestions they conclude the book with:

  1. “Ask your students reflective questions about what is meaningful in the writing they’re doing for your courses and why” (136).
  2. “Look closely for the places where aspects of a writing assignment can be made more expansive, more inviting, more past connected and more future oriented in ways driven by students’ goals and interests” (136).

The idea seems to be that I should not just assign students writing tasks but that I should craft writing tasks that can connect to larger contexts and purposes than the grade or the even immediate skill and that I should be purposeful in getting students to consider these larger contexts and purposes. The implications, then, are both for how I design assignments and for how I frame and pitch the assignments to students.

I also want to start thinking about meaningfulness in teaching and learning more broadly. What makes students remember any kind of assignment, fondly, years later? (We might need a whole separate study on traumatic assignments!) What would make a meaningful reading project? A meaningful discussion? A meaningful calculation? A meaningful exam? A meaningful lecture?

In short, we should start asking ourselves what steps we can take to help students find meaning in whatever work we ask them to do. How can we help students personally connect with this task? How can we help students see this task’s relevance to their past lives and future lives (including careers)? How can we help students engage themselves fully in the work at hand?

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