SIP 8.6 Meaningful Writing Projects

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

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 a period of time. Writing scholars and researchers Michele Eodice, Anne Ellen Geller, and Neal Lerner (2016) surveyed 707 college students from three different institutions what made writing assignments meaningful to them . Eodice et. al. observed that students found writing assignments particularly meaningful when the assignments allow 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:

  1. Build some 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 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 much 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Build into the assignment some class time for students to talk about their topics with each other, explaining why they chose them. These conversations may be very 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.
  6. Spend time in class (or in an online discussion) talking with students about how their writing projects connect with their future 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 game.

Still Thirsty? Take another SIP Food Insecurity and Poverty in the College Classroom

  • Read the book, The Meaningful Writing Project: Learning, Teaching, and Writing in Higher Education, based on the Eodice et. al’s research (
  • 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 at for more great ideas and resources for Strong Instructional Practices in your higher ed

Permanent link to this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.