Meaningful writing projects
Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?
September 27, 2018
We know what a powerful teaching and learning tool writing can be, but sometimes slogging through students’ papers can be a trial, with interesting, original thought sometimes hard to find. One reason we assign writing is to give students the opportunity to engage deeply in a subject, but it often seems that even when we carefully design writing assignments, students just skim the surface and perform the writing task in a perfunctory manner. What can we do to make that deep engagement we want more likely?
Take a SIP of this: Meaningful Writing Projects
Students do their best writing and learn the most when they find an assignment personally meaningful. This may be particularly true for writing projects because to do a writing project well requires sustained effort over time. Writing scholars and researchers Michele Eodice, Anne Ellen Geller and Neal Lerner (2016) asked 707 college students from three institutions what made writing assignments compelling to them. Eodice, et al., observed that students found writing assignments particularly meaningful when the assignments allowed them to find a personal connection and to “imagine future selves ... connected to their goals and interests.”
Here are some steps you can take to make sure the writing you assign to students is meaningful to them:
- Build choice into the assignment. You might specify some aspects of the assignment but leave others open. For example, you might require a particular genre, length and type of sources to be used in a research paper but leave the topic open. Or you might specify a broad topic but help students find ways into that topic that are personally meaningful to them. If all students must write about energy, perhaps one might write about energy conservation, another might write about nuclear energy and a third might write about safety in the coal industry.
- Create assignments that allow students to use their imagination. Students could write (and even perform) skits in which they imagine themselves to be figures in the discipline — in a political-science class, for example, they might write skits in which the Founding Fathers debate a modern-day issue. In a literature course, students might compose projects in which characters from multiple literary works interact. In a science class, students might write out a fictional debate between scientists who disagree on a key issue.
- Develop assignments that ask students to create authentic writing — that is, writing that does real work in the real world. For example, grant proposals or letters to the editor that will actually be submitted.
- Invite students to find personal connections in their writing. You can do this by asking them to write a cover letter or brief introduction to their project in which they articulate their personal connection.
- Build into the assignment some class time for students to talk about their topics with one another, explaining why they chose them. These conversations may be brief, but they allow students time to share their passion and excitement about their topics with others, which may inspire students with less connection to their topics to find connections and spur students with strong connections to their topics to deepen their connections even further. Alternatively, this can be done as an online discussion.
- Spend time in class (or in an online discussion) talking with students about how their writing projects connect with their career and personal goals. Encourage them to find connections, even if they are sure there aren’t any. This could become a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon-type
Still thirsty? Take another SIP of meaningful writing projects:
- Read “The Meaningful Writing Project: Learning, Teaching and Writing in Higher Education.”
- This online monograph offers concrete suggestions for creating prompts that ask students to compose meaningful writing projects.
- Read about this ESL teacher who creates authentic writing assignments.
Visit the Well for more great ideas and resources for Strong Instructional Practices in your higher-education classroom!