For the past two years, a grassroots group of faculty at the University of Michigan–Flint (UM Flint) has been exploring ways to encourage integrative learning and metacognitive practice through “signature assignments.”
For us, a signature assignment is a substantial project within a course that illustrates something quintessential about course content, embeds at least one general education learning outcome, asks students to synthesize and apply learning, gives students agency and choice in the application of their learning, and requires a significant and intentional reflective component to help students identify and articulate relationships between course material, the curriculum, their community, and their sense of self.
Each component of our definition speaks to connectivity: connecting concepts within courses; courses to learning outcomes; outcomes to practical application of learning; application to student agency; and agency to learning processes that aid meaning-making and learning transfer. The assignments are a signature feature of the course, and in completing the assignment, students put their signature stamp on the work by showcasing their unique selves, their learning experiences, and the issues that matter to them.
Why Signature Assignments?
Culminating experiences like capstones or multi-semester signature work projects can be profoundly powerful for students, but they often come as a single milestone in students’ final semester. Our group aims to multiply the effects of such experiences by scaling up the number of milestones, embedding “signature assignments” across different levels of the curriculum, and scaling down the stakes by focusing on one-semester projects or a single unit within a course. Without an official mandate from our institution, our voluntary group builds support for signature assignments as a way to foster integrative learning and reflective practices across campus.
The value of this work became more apparent during the pandemic. When COVID-19 forced our classes online, signature assignments helped some faculty regroup. One faculty member in the sciences found alternative ways for students to apply learning outside of the lab context and use reflections to demonstrate command of course content. He later quipped that pivoting to a signature assignment “saved his butt.”
Signature Assignments at UM Flint
About 20 percent of UM-Flint’s 5,000 undergraduates have taken a course that included a signature assignment. This figure is exciting because faculty are not required to include signature assignments in any part of the curriculum. But faculty are interested in student success and equity, as well as the teaching innovations that support both.
Each semester, we issue an open call to faculty inviting them to use a signature assignment and administer our survey. Faculty choose to include a signature assignment for different reasons.
The biggest hooks to engage faculty are (1) their self-motivated interest in improving their teaching, (2) hearing from other faculty about how these assignments generate more satisfying work from students, (3) the opportunity to receive anonymous feedback on their assignment, and (4) being part of the camaraderie and excitement generated by our yearly event where we present aggregate data and showcase faculty assignment examples.
Faculty Satisfaction with Signature Assignments
Of the forty-four faculty who responded to our survey, 98 percent (43) agree that students “effectively applied course concepts” through the signature assignment, and 93 percent (40) are “happy” with what students produced. Notably, 90 percent (38) confirm that developing a signature assignment helped them rethink ways of making other assignments “more meaningful.”
Faculty wrote comments describing the value of signature assignments to “engage students and make them more active learners,” help students “take ownership of their own learning and intellectual development,” and encourage students to “recognize” elements of the course related to critical thinking that had previously gone unnoticed. Faculty note how using signature assignments made them “rethink all of the assignments” and were “worth the effort.” Students think so, too.
Student Satisfaction with Signature Assignments
Of the 873 students who responded to our survey, 90 percent (730) see signature assignments as an “effective way to apply complex concepts.” A gratifying 80 percent (642) are “proud” of their work. Ultimately, 70 percent (559) indicated that they hoped to complete more signature assignments.
Students also supplied detailed written comments about their experiences, 76 percent (190) of which are positive and often effusive. Students note how signature assignments positively affect their learning by giving them “ the opportunity to reflect on and further their learning.” Through such assignments, students came to “think logically and carefully,” feel more “confident with [their] writing,” further their “ideas of scientific experimentation,” and experience “a new curiosity about the world.”
Students also speak to the uniqueness of signature assignments: “I found the learning experience gained from completing the assignment was unlike any other project or assignment,” one student wrote. Or, as another student said, “This assignment was a rad dad.”
A truly noteworthy finding is that 82 percent (669) of student respondents agree that the signature assignment helped them make connections to other courses in the curriculum. What’s remarkable about this is that most faculty reported that their own assignments hadn’t actually asked students to make these connections! But by asking students to reflect on their learning and make connections across different topics within the course, students built their own networked view of learning that integrated knowledge and experiences from other contexts.
The integrative practices found in our signature assignments provide many opportunities for students to practice making connections and articulating their place and purpose within higher education and the world. The collective energy of even a few faculty working with each other and giving attention to their own assignment design can make a large difference. Especially now, when so much is unknown and hope has to be a more intentional practice, we see the work of signature assignments as more crucial than ever.
The UM-Flint faculty research group includes the authors along with Tracy Wacker, Kazuko Hiramatsu, and Rajib Ganguly.