Designing Personal and Experiential Assignments

By Linor David

I am sure I am not the only person who gets bored with repetition- nor the only teacher who has found themselves dreading opening the assignment folder! As a student, I can remember looking at assignments, and wondering, what does this have to do with me? What am I going to get out of this? So, knowing that about myself, and trying to imagine being in my students’ shoes, I try to design assessments that I will find interesting to read and that the students will find interesting to do. 

For one thing, I try to make assignments personal. I ask students to reflect on their own experiences, their passions, and their neighbourhoods, anything that is both unique to them and that relates to the content. In this way, I get to know them more as I read their assignments, and the information sticks with them because they reinforcing connections. When I write comments, they are not formulaic, because they are responses to that individual’s experiences. 

The other thing I try to do is to make assignments experiential on some level. When teaching community development usually that involves them doing some type of challenge and reflecting on it, like interviewing someone, going to a community meeting, or changing a habit. 

When you read assignments that are personal and experiential, each one is unique. It is good for the reader (phew) – and it keeps students from being able to plagiarize each other’s work. Year to year, student to student, the assignment stays the same, but the results look different. 

Here is an example of a living, breathing assignment. When I teach policy, I want students to learn about what responsibilities each level of government has. I want students to be able to identify policies that impact on their lives and on the communities around them. I also want them to start feeling more confident in their ability to influence the system. In order to achieve these learning outcomes, I have them pick an issue that they are passionate about and write a letter to their elected official about that issue. I also have the students email their letter to the elected official and attach a screenshot to show they have done so. Over the years, issues have included transit, employment, housing, and education- depending on the students and what is happening in the world. 

More than 90% of the students get responses. Sometimes the responses are formulaic, but more often than not, the responses are thoughtful and informative. I get excited emails to my inbox saying, ‘look what they wrote back!’, and I am in turn thrilled about their successes in being heard and in making change. Even though their assignment has been handed in and marked, the discussions and learnings continue throughout the semester as students receive responses and oftentimes carry on conversations with their elected officials.  

Here is some anonymous feedback I received from my students related to the letter assignment:

“One of the most important skills I think I will remember to use is the importance of writing to my elected official. Before this class, I never realized how beneficial it is to get involved and communicate with my elected officials. To be honest, before this class, I have never thought about it before. Now I’m worried they are going to get sick of me 😉 because I have so many things I want to say.”  

“The course as open my eyes to a lot of things i should have been paying attention to in my community. I was never into politics but this as thought me so much. I now know which level of government to address if there is an issue in my area and have the courage to address them.”

For me, if I look at an assignment with dread – and imagine the tedious monotony of marking it, I try to think about the ways that I could fill it with life by making it more personal, more experiential, and thereby more unique. I think about what might make a student feel curious, or expressive, and try to design the assignment to become an opportunity for them to discover and share new things about themselves, their learnings, and the world. 

About Linor David

Linor has worked in community development and adult education for the past 15 years. She is passionate about designing learning that is creative, experiential, and rooted in people’s knowledge and experiences. She has a BSC of Psychology from Trent University and a Masters in Adult Education from OISE.