What makes a meaningful assignment?

I’ve been talking a lot about reducing the picky and endless details of the assignments in order to get the students to dig deeper and think more holistically so the whole experience becomes more meaningful.  But what does that mean exactly?  How do I know if the assignments are meaningful?  Certainly, I evaluate by deeply subjective measures:  the extent to which the students seem to care about it and if it engages their classmates and me, the degree to which it seems to strike an emotional chord with the students, and whether or not the assignment is personal, unique to that student.

We’ve had lots of these so far, many many more than in my traditional semester where I give them fewer options.  The poems were all personal as were the presentations of their creative work, and obviously so was the explanation of the “23 and me” results.  This came from a student who had always thought she was simply Dominican.  She displayed the chart that showed us she was made of DNA from three continents. She had just received the results the day before and was still stunned.

And the student who read her aunt’s letter to her mother from 20 years ago blew me away.  It could have been on NPR.  Her aunt had just married, was sent to live with her husband’s family as is traditional in that culture, and was terribly lonely and upset.  She wanted to go back home to her mother and eat her mother’s food.  I’m not sure how the class processed it, but I was deeply moved by this beautiful and heart-breaking letter.  So I counted this as a meaningful assignment because sometimes it’s about me.  (I told you the criteria are subjective.).

I also deemed the student-led conversations as quite meaningful.  One was on the effects of technology and children, one on the ethics of zoos, another on cryptocurrency.  While not necessarily personal, they did a good job of getting their classmates to engage in the conversation and a number of students had excellent questions and insights.

Ultimately, however, the assignment is meaningful if the student finds it meaningful.  And the only way I know if that is true, is by asking the students to reflect on their experience.  “Describe what you did and tell me how you felt about it in two pages, typed, Times New Roman, 12 point, one-inch margins.” (OK, sometimes I like lots of detail and specificity; I’ll work out the contradictions later.)

These reflections work on at least two levels.  The obvious first level is that it allows me to see how they understand the assignment, what they got out of it, if they took it seriously, etc.  For example, many of the students wrote about how nervous they were expressing themselves in this new way in front of the class.  Exposing something they cared about (the poems, the art work) felt very risky to them and they all wrote about how relieved and grateful they were that the class responded to them so positively.  The Trump Tower assignment was a very powerful one for the students.  They were really nervous about reading out loud, being videotaped for a public facebook page and felt the gravity of the political moment.  One student wrote that he was proud to be part of history.

But the next level is that the reflection creates the meaning.  It’s one thing for them to present a poem or read at Trump Tower and then go on with their lives.  It’s something else altogether for them to stop, get clear about how they understand the experience and then explain it to me.  They could very well do the assignment, find it meaningful and then not look back.  And so that meaning can be lost in the hustle of their days.  But if they  write about it, that reflection anchors the meaning deeper into their consciousness.  Or better yet, they may not have even realized their understanding of the assignment, until they have to write about it.

As we say in the biz, “meaning is socially constructed.” So one way I’m trying to construct meaningful assignments is to let the students create them and then reflect on the experience.


35 thoughts on “What makes a meaningful assignment?

  1. I firmly believe that “reflection across the curriculum” is the most important (and perhaps only “across the curriculum”) program we need!

  2. i dont think the reflection part is necessary at least not in my work i never really feel like i have much to say on my own work that i cant ever say in a few lines. However that doesn’t mean i dont find any meaning in my own work ,especially poems. In fact poems typically are very personal to me so its extra difficult to share them with anyone. Either way i believe that if it wasnt for the poems themselves i dont think id fair any better with something i have no interest in.

    1. I agree with Shariff J , I do believe that the assignment and project are meaningful . For example ,the youtube
      video and trump tower the reflection should be in video or reading should be enough. I also feel that poems and art that when present it class it already sets meaning behind it and Its is also lot to present, go to event or do project and reflection. presenting should be enough

    2. I think sometimes the reflection shouldn’t be there because I had placed a lot of meaning and emotion behind my poem. When I went to do the reflection it wasn’t long because I felt I already showed how meaningful it was in the presentation.

  3. As you stated, it should be meaningful to the students. It is a good idea for us to write a reflection paper afterwards, because simple things to you maybe the meaningful little things to us. Although i have stated that maybe we should write afterwards to better help you understand how the topic is meaningful, I think it’ll be awesome to if we cut it down from two pages to maybe one. I personally am horrible at stretching things out.

  4. As you stated, it should be meaningful to the students. It is a good idea for us to write a reflection paper afterwards, because simple things to you maybe the meaningful little things to us. Although i have stated that maybe we should write afterwards to better help you understand how the topic is meaningful, I think it’ll be awesome to if we cut it down from two pages to maybe one. I personally am horrible at stretching things out.

  5. As you stated, it should be meaningful to the students. It is a good idea for us to write a reflection paper afterwards, because simple things to you maybe the meaningful little things to us. Although i have stated that maybe we should write afterwards to better help you understand how the topic is meaningful, I think it’ll be awesome to if we cut it down from two pages to maybe one. I personally am horrible at stretching things out.

    1. I totally agree on what you said. it is the simple things that matter the most and pushes us to be our best.

  6. I really agree to this very much. I believe as a student myself we should be able to feel comfortable when we are doing any paper or assignment because that matters a lot. Every detail counts and every little energy we put into as well. It’s very important for me to be able to really be into the piece am writing or thinking about to make even sense out of it. Meaningful assignments are honestly the best ones.

  7. To create and give us assignments that are meaningful to us is incredible in my opinion. When I know I have freedom to do something in my own way I feel as if I put more of my heart and soul into that thing. That is exactly how it felt hearing speeches and personal writings from my co-students this semester. Not only was it intriguing and made the class and our relationship deeper but it brought a sense of realism and not just a “oh, this is just a class we have to take so let me bullshit along and try to get a good grade” (excuse my language but this is how I felt about all of my other shallow classes that only taught me how to be a robot in this technologically advancing civilization)

  8. Having the option to do an assignment of our choice and about what we want it to be on, in my opinion is a very beautiful thing. Being able to express ourselves on topics we find meaningful is important, especially in a speech class . Getting to write about how we felt afterwards is a good thing that we do in this class, that was we can look back and think how we felt presenting topics that meant something to us

  9. To be honest I dont know how i feel about the reflections on assignments. For assignments like the johari window it really anchors down and forces you to think about the things you discussed with whoever you interviewed, but for assignments like trump tower it kind of seems redundant. However, I do agree it’s a good way for you too see how well we did on each assignment. Maybe the reflections don’t always have to be written but can be expressed in another form like just talking about how the assignment went.

  10. Wow! It sounds like the other section of your SPE 100 class was really one to be a part of. I know it seems I chose really science-y type material for my speeches, but honestly it was because of things going on personally that I chose them. My “Heartbreak” speech was inspired by a recent breakup that practically crushed my soul. I needed to figure out how to feel better so that I could move on; not only with the semester, but in life. I knew that heartbreak was something many people have, or would, experience and if talking about it could help them the way it helped me I wanted to provide the tools to do so. My “Sleep Debt” speech came on the heels of weeks of horrible nights of sleep because of insecure housing. I’d been worried about not being able to perform by the time finals came and all the effects I was living through because I was tired all of the time. Finally, I chose my speech for Trump Tower because I remembered the first I heard it and the amount of hope it inspired in me. There was this sense that as a nation we’ve been through difficulties and pulled through because we did so together. I thought that if we could remember that it is only by working together, and not focus on bipartisanship, we might be able to continue to progress. That we could move away from the divide that seems to be gaining traction under Trump’s administration. I know this isn’t two pages of reflection, but your assignments most certainly had meaning for me outside of it being credit/no credit. 😊

  11. Letting students do assignments that are meaningful to them is substantial. Everyone has something they are good at and by letting us bring that into our assignments allows us to dig deeper. When students go up in front of the classroom it is already nerve wrecking but when you are presenting something that you are passionate about it takes a load off of the anxiety many of us experience. The student presenting teaches all of us something, it gives us something to think about, to consider. When a student participates in something like the trump tower assignment, they might not actually understand how impacted them. The reflections allows students to sit back and write about how it affected them and the importance of it or how it was beneficial to them.

  12. The flexibility to create my own assignment definitely contributed to making it more meaningful. My persuasive speech assignment was on “Mass Production of Coffee” and as a coffee-lover it was awesome diving deeper into where our coffee was sourced and speak about it passionately. I also was very interested in Monroe’s motivated sequence and how to convince people to take action.

  13. As you have stated it is important to do a great essay I would say. If the topic is interested I will give my all just as if it is not. My persuasive speech I would do is on Vaccines. I have started and it is very interested. Looking forward to it.

  14. Speech is a really great class, it helps me become more open and understand others as well and if we keep having assignments like this, it allows us to connect with each other, it can truly be very meaningful like you have described.

  15. This is so true. I feel this way us as students can learn with something that really affected us. I know when assignments are meaningful I learn so much and will remember it for a long time.

  16. I’m here for the meaningful assignment COMPLETELY! from my experience in presenting an assignment to my class it resonated with me more because i knew i had to present it, which technically the presentation is representation of me so i prided myself on making sure I’m understood. With that said please continue giving your students meaningful assignments.

  17. there are so many ways to write a good meaningful assignment some people don’t like to talk about themselves because they do not feel comfortable to share their life but they can still write about the things that are going on in our reality today there is so many things is happening that is so meaningful and painful

  18. I think that letting the students have freedom over the speeches they would like to give is very important. Only then you can see how they really feel about a topic and how the speech is well formed. If you force a student to give a boring speech they will just go through the motions and give a speech with no emotion.

  19. Assignments should be meaningful.Giving the opportunity to reflect on our assignment helps us to express ourselves more,understand and connected deeply with it.when you are presenting something that you are passionate about it takes a load off of the anxiety many of us experience.Once the assignment is meaningful the more chances we have to relate by putting your soul and heart into it which makes it feel realistic and builds a deeper relationship with the class and professor.

  20. Reflections on assignments……..mmmm. You’re most tough assignment so far is the Trump Tower and Youtube video because I believe it takes us students out of our comfort zone.

  21. The expansiveness in this assignment is remarkable, it curates to different people with different varieties of essence. It assimilates what students value as meaningful into their curriculum as individuals, instead of by the curriculum itself. Playing into their strengths and character instead of leaving them feeling vulnerable to misunderstanding an assignment.

  22. the approach of assessing a students assignment based on their engagement and the reception of you and the class is deeply meaningful in itself. Public speaking is tremendously intimidating for so many folks, what you have displayed here by emphasizing meaning instead of specificity is an organic impression that we can make on ourselves and each other through the strength of sharing and reflecting on our narratives. Still intimidating yes- but the opportunity to express yourself in such a way is rare so not only is this impactful in developing our speech but it’s memorable because it exercises our empathy.

  23. I like the idea of the 2 page reflection because it gives a deeper look of the person. You get to know how they feel about the assignment, why they chose it, or how they felt doing it. There is a lot that plays into part when your up performing. So reflecting about it, gives an in-depth look of the project for the students as well. Your example about how deep these reflections can be is eye opening. The fact that someone said that they were proud to be part of history, Shows how impacted he was by the project and what it meant to him.

  24. Yes, I totally agree because it gives you a sense of what you can improve maybe for future preference. Also, it’s important that it’s meaningful because you find a motivation to complete it and put in more effort as well. Once you receive feedback from your peers and professor you can learn what went wrong or how can you improve better.

  25. The meaningful assignment is a perfect way to express yourself and I personally am fond of this assignment because you can utilize it by speaking about what you find important in life that others may not be aware of.

  26. I agree that the meaningful assignments are a perfect way to get the most out of your students. As a student myself, there is some comfort in talking about personal experiences. I feel as though I do my best work when I can write or speak freely, without having to cloud my mind with a bunch of research on a topic that 1) I don’t care about, and 2) I don’t know anything about. Also, these kinds of assignments bring out the passion in people.

  27. Having the opportunity to reflect on your own assignment helps us express and describe our feelings and our hiding thoughts. When it comes to me I did the Trump Tower assignment and I was hesitating because for me reading out loud in a place like the Trump Tower was a really powerful and scary thing to do.

  28. I love that in the class were allowed to express ourselves no matter what subject it is. that gives us the power to not only voice our emotions but share what we care most about. this option is really versatile and great to know that were not entirely restricted to one assignment everyone must do. And it not boring to us because it something that we enjoy to talk about and not only does it educate us because something someone may know not everyone will and I have definitely learned some things from other students.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *