Making it Personal: a Tool for Student Engagement

The most memorable lecture I ever attended was in an Economics class in my first year of undergrad. It was the last day of class before the final and the professor was delivering his “end of the year wrap up” — essentially covering a semester’s worth of materials in 75 minutes. He paced up and down the aisles of the large lecture hall, his words keeping cadence with hundreds of keyboards furiously typing in time. Towards the end of the class period, he grew quiet. The note taking slowed and we all settled into our seats as he stood at the front of the room, rubbing his suddenly-stopped jaw. He looked around and told us he had one last lesson to teach us, then he repeated a phrase that had been a staple of our semester in the class: “sunk costs are sunk.”

In terms of economics, sunk costs are those which have been incurred and are unrecoverable. We were taught in the class, from the very beginning of the semester, to ignore these losses when conducting any kind of future cost/ benefit analysis. The professor had used the infamous example of the Concorde as illustration, explaining how even after the supersonic airplane project was predicted to never cover its own losses, interested parties were blinded by their investments and continued working until it was completed, ultimately spending millions of dollars on a plane no longer in use.

When my Economics professor repeated this phrase, “sunk costs are sunk,” I assumed he was just reminding us of this ever-important rule for the final exam. He continued, however, to outline the greater fallacy at play. When we consider sunk costs, he explained, we are thinking irrationally. We are considering the past rather than the present or the future. “Just because we lost something in the past — time, money, happiness — does not mean we have to continue losing.” He used a range of examples to underscore his point, everything from putting down a book we haven’t finished because we find it boring; to ending a years-long relationship that no longer makes us happy. Just because we have invested in something, he said, does not mean we have to continue investing in it. We can never get back what we lost —  sunk costs are, after all, sunk — but we can lay claim to our future.

Before this lecture I’d struggled with he concept of sunk costs. I couldn’t necessarily understand why you wouldn’t include them in a financial analysis, but I accepted the rule as an obscure economic truth.  This personal application of the concept, this humanization of what I’d thought was an abstract principle, suddenly made the rule seem so obvious. It became easy to understand because I could see its application to reality, to my own life. WAC pedagogy, at its foundation, seeks to increase opportunities for this kind of more intimate student engagement and, while there are several researched and proven-effective ways of doing so, my favorite methods are those which specific encourage students to make learning personal in the way this professor did for me.

Writing Intensive curriculums are heavily centered around assignments and course designs which foster critical thinking. This is because critical thinking promotes, among other things, self-reflection, which then leads to “personally meaningful learning.” And when learning becomes personally meaningful, it sticks. The practice of improving engagement through writing and personalization has even been studied and proven effective. The Meaningful Writing Project (2016) was a landmark study which focused on students’ and instructors’ thoughts regarding what made a writing assignment impactful. The researchers, Michelle Eodice, Anne Ellen Geller, and Neal Lerner, surveyed and interviewed graduating seniors at three institutions of higher education, asking them about the qualities of their most meaningful college writing experience. From the more than seven hundred student survey responses collected and over two-dozen instructors interviewed there emerged clear patterns in the kinds of writing tasks that students found most meaningful:

  1. “The assignment gave students agency to pursue a topic that they were passionate about or that they found especially relevant.”
  2. “The assignment required students to engage with the instructor, peers, and the disciplinary content of the course.”
  3. “The assignment made a connection for students: connecting to previous experiences, connecting to a student’s passion, connecting to future aspirations and identities” (Bean 65).

As you can see, two of the three emergent patterns reference the students’ personal passion for or connection to the writing project, making it clear that this personalization is what engages students most. But how does one actually do this? How can instructors effectively integrate personal learning into courses that aren’t necessarily designed to include the kinds of creative writing assignments that inherently encourage more intimate writing? Engaging Ideas, the primary book used in WAC curriculum and the WI certification process, references exploratory writing and “open-form genre” assignments as means of encouraging personal connection and, therefore, more engaged learning among students. “These assignments can help us get to know our students better. We learn characteristic ways that different students think and study. We learn about their backgrounds and values and get insights into how we might engage them more fully or coach them more effectively. […] exploratory writing gives students a safe and easy way to disclose personal problems that may be affecting their studying or class performance” (Bean 95). These assignments can be something as simple as a daily journal writing task that asks students to relate a topic to their own life. An art history course might ask students to look for certain design principles in the architecture where they live; while a physical science course might tell students to keep track of all the laws of physics they witness at work in their day to day life. Exploratory writing can also be a creative assignment that asks students to write out an imagined debate-dialogue about a course concept between them and a friend. Such an assignment allows a student to defend a thesis from their own point of view, highlighting how they think and what their influences might be, while also forcing them to think critically and present an opposing point of view. The exploratory tasks can look any way you want them to, the point is for them to humanize the material in a way that makes it accessible — to “immerse students in complexity without being threatening.”

Within exploratory writing, the concept of “open-form” genres invites a kind of flexibility in student writing than can be really empowering. Open-form genres, such as literary nonfiction, “often celebrate playfulness, digressions, personal voice, […] or other characteristics that resist the smoothly mapped structure, predictability, and argumentative confidence of closed‐form prose. These open‐form genres often have a reflective, personal, exploratory, or inquiring stance; they often try to heighten or deepen a problem or show its human significance…” (Bean 48). Open-form assignments differ from thesis-driven assignments because they given students the freedom of both abstraction and personalization. Students are empowered to take a concept and extrapolate it outside of the context of the course and into their own lives.

One example of the way WAC pedagogy redefines writing assignments to encourage personal connection to course materials is by reimagining the materials as dialogical rather than just informational. “In addition to creating cognitive dissonance for our students, we need to show them that our course readings, textbooks, and lectures are not simply “information‐to‐be‐remembered,” as if nothing were at stake, but contingent perspectives embedded in a field of inquiry, analysis, and argument” (Bean 28, emphasis added). By redefining course materials in this way — as perspectival and subjective — students feel empowered to enter in a conversation with them, to interpret them through their own lens and take into consideration their own personal experiences. Students should be encouraged to view course concepts not as untouchable, informational realities outside their realm of influence, but rather as jumping-off points for their own critical thinking exercises. The example given in John Bean’s Engaging Ideas reads as follows:Suppose a history textbook enumerates the “five causes of the Civil War.” Novice students are apt to regard these five causes as facts or “right answers” to be memorized for a test. To grow as critical thinkers, they need to see these causes as interpretations by historians—as meaning‐making analyses open to revision and debate” (28). To elaborate, making this lesson personal could mean challenging students to consider how this historical reality relates to them. While a “fact” of the Civil War is that it started over slavery, students might be asked to consider what non-negotiable civil rights issues might lead them to go to war. Their responses will be influenced by their own personal values: their upbringings, religions, personal experiences, etc., and this personal engagement will go farther than just exposure to the surface facts of a historical event, it will deepen their understanding of a human concept. Rather than just learning how the Civil War started, they’ll come to understand the complexities of organized violence within humanity. Furthermore, they’ll recognize that these histories are interpreted and reiterated by human-beings with their own unique perceptions, perhaps even seeing themselves as existing within this process of meaning-making.

It’s this freedom of relation to self that makes learning personally-meaningful and powerful. It’s what will get students engaged in learning and retaining information, maybe even decades later — while I have completely forgotten how to calculate a cost/benefit analysis, the concept of a sunk cost has never left me. If we want to achieve this kind of retainment, we have to allow and encourage a personal engagement with what we teach or it will always feel distant, unattainable, and, in the worst cases, uninteresting. WAC pedagogy and WI curriculums are designed to improve student engagement through this kind of humanization. There are tools to help make any discipline feel accessible and relatable to its students, to help them engage with materials and, hopefully, take responsibility for their own learning. If this is the true goal of our instruction, to get students to process and understand great concepts and complexities, not just remember information long enough to be tested, then we have to make it personal.

Bean, John C., and Dan Melzer. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. Jossey-Bass, 2021.

One Reply to “Making it Personal: a Tool for Student Engagement”

  1. I started learning Japanese five years ago. I bought a textbook, took notes, put every new word and grammar point into Anki as flashcards, reviewed them daily, and set aside a certain amount of time each day to learn the language. Three years later, although my mind was filled with all kinds of advanced Japanese words, I still couldn’t speak fluently in one sentence and express everyday basics. It was getting harder and harder to remember old words and keep up with new material. I gave up, and soon all these words lay dormant. I was frustrated because even though I was very disciplined and passionate about learning the language, and with all the time I put in I still couldn’t master it. I thought maybe I’m not good at learning languages.

    About a year later, I picked up Japanese again. This time I signed up for some conversation classes, with topics such as hobbies, movies, TV series, animations, part-time jobs, seasonal foods, holidays, etc. Now even without conscious memorization, some words stick in my mind and I could easily talk in my day-to-day conversations.

    Now that I think about it, I realized that I couldn’t apply the new words and grammar points I learned from the old-school textbook to my daily life, which made learning difficult. Conversation classes, on the other hand, always ask questions about my daily life.

    Melanie’s post made a compelling case for why it is critical to make our learning personal. For me, if we think of knowledge as a ball, then the things we have newly encountered/learned are loosely connected by a thin string. Repetition and regular review may make the string thicker and stronger, but the things are still outside of us, and the attachment may become fragile and disconnected over time. It is only after the application to personal scenarios that the things can adhere to the ball of knowledge itself. It becomes part of the ball of knowledge. As Melanie states, “when learning becomes personally meaningful, it sticks.”

    Thinking back on all sorts of my learning, I found this statement to be true. Through repetition, I memorized most of the formulas in my undergraduate calculus class by the end of the semester, but quickly I forgot them after the final exam because I didn’t use them in the subsequent studies. I became interested in UX design and took courses from Coursera. It seems a bit far removed from my literary studies, but through the courses, I’ve always made meaningful connections to the design of the courses I teach, applying the industry knowledge of UX design, peer review, oral presentation, and the revision process to the writing courses I teach and care about. It is in these moments that the new knowledge is fully absorbed and real learning occurs.

    In my own class this semester (a writing lab where students learn basic skills for writing argumentative essays), I’m teaching concepts like argument, motive, claim, definition, premise, paragraph, flow, and so on. These concepts are important when students write argumentative essays. But why do students care after they take these writing courses and graduate from college? To apply these to the personal level, I consider practicing an informal writing activity: “Imagine your friend disagrees with you on an issue, and you will need to respond to your friend. Use the terms we have learned so far to describe how you would like to respond to your friend. These terms include: argument, motive, claim, definition, premise, paragraph, and flow.” I hope that with this assignment, students will realize that these concepts are not only good for writing a good and coherent essay in college and getting good grades, but also help them characterize their way of thinking and conversing in an intellectual and civil way.

    Indeed, college-level courses sometimes require a high level of abstraction, and sometimes it is difficult to find relevant examples in our daily lives, and other times we as instructors may not have enough time to allow students to practice applying the concepts to their lives. But we should keep asking ourselves and our students and finding opportunities “to take a concept and extrapolate it outside of the context of the course and into their own lives,” as Melanie suggests.  

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