Teaching Transparently

Back in September 2015, The Innovative Instructor posted Do Your Students Understand the Assignment?, an article that examined the concept of transparent Semi-spherical transparent soap bubble on a grey wood surface.teaching. Transparent teaching helps students understand the why and how of their learning. Research from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) Transparency in Learning and Teaching Project (TILT) has shown that when students understand the task, its purpose, and the criteria for evaluating their work, they are more motivated and feel the work is more relevant. The TILT website has some excellent suggestions and resources for instructors, including examples of assignments from various disciplines presented in two versions, less transparent and more transparent, for comparison.

A recent post on Teaching Tidbits,  a blog sponsored by the Mathematical Association of America to keep higher ed math faculty up on advances in educational research and pedagogical practices by providing “…quality, evidence-based ideas with high impact and low time commitment that can be used by a wide audience,” examined teaching with transparency. [October 24, 2017, How Transparency Improves Learning by Darryl Yong] Although the focus is on teaching college mathematics, the key points are applicable to a range of subjects.

Yong starts by citing the work done at UNLV, noting in particular the finding that underrepresented students experienced the greatest improvement in learning outcomes when transparent teaching methods were used. Yong speculates that transparent teaching helps to level the playing field for these students.

A key to teaching more transparently is to see things from your students’ vantage points. What would they find “bewildering, frustrating or alienating?” Being transparent does not mean that you don’t expect the work to be challenging rather that you will “engage your students in a productive struggle.”

Providing instructions in more than one format is helpful. For example, you should include information on assignments in writing on your syllabus, verbally in class, and again in written form in handouts to be sure that students aren’t missing important details.

Yong says, “The amount of transparency that you provide to students depends on their maturity and the level of the course. There are times when you don’t want to be explicit about everything. For example, you don’t want to constrain their creativity by priming them with examples, you want them to struggle with figuring out what the first step should be, or you want them to be more independent in their learning.”

He concludes the post with some suggestions on transparency for mathematics courses, but even these can be translated to more general use. The concepts are:

  • Be sure that students understand discipline-specific terminology.
  • Be clear about the tools, applications, and resources are students allowed to use for assignments and exams.
  • Explain why you have chosen a particular assignment, project, or type of exam. Connect these choices to their learning outcomes. Share strategies that successful students have used in the past for assignments and evaluations. Share rubrics when used for grading. Share examples of successful projects.
  • Tell students why you have chosen the pedagogical strategies you use to teach.
  • Start each class by highlighting a relevant current area of research and the people doing it. If your field has not been inclusive in the past, acknowledge that and “showcase women and people of color in these highlights to engage in counter-stereotyping.”

Teaching transparently will involve more planning and preparation for your course. It also means teaching intentionally. Improved learning outcomes and greater student satisfaction will make it worth your effort.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com


Do Your Students Understand the Assignment?

An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education caught my attention this past week: The Unwritten Rules of College by Dan Berrett (September 21, 2015), profiled art history professor Mary-Ann Winkelmes and her quest to help students learn how to learn.

Black and white line drawing of the upper torso of a young male in a thinking pose. Two question marks are on either side of his head.Winkelmes, the former director of Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, has also trained faculty in teaching at the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and, currently, at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas where she is principal investigator of  Transparency in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. This project seeks “to improve higher education teaching and learning experiences for faculty and students through two main activities:

  • promoting students’ conscious understanding of how they learn, and
  • enabling faculty to gather, share and promptly benefit from current data about students’ learning by coordinating their efforts across disciplines, institutions and countries.

A primary focus for Winkelmes has been reaching out to students who are first generation college students or otherwise may not understand what she calls “the secret, unwritten rules of how to succeed in college.” [See: Winkelmes, Mary-Ann. “Equity of Access and Equity of Experience in Higher Education.” National Teaching and Learning Forum, 24, 2 (February 2015), 1-4.] “As an increasingly broad and diverse cross section of students enters higher education, knowing those rules matters more than ever. Without them, students stumble. They might miss the point of a paper, drift during discussions, or feel overwhelmed or aimless. But all students can thrive, Ms. Winkelmes says, if the tacit curriculum is made plain.”

Winkelmes’ findings from the Transparency in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education project point to giving assignments in a transparent manner as having a “significant effect on students.” Faculty involved in the project considered three questions when creating assignments: the task, the purpose, and the criteria.

Defining the task means that the students are told exactly what they are to do. Students should also know the purpose of the assignment. Why are they being asked to do this and what is the instructor’s goal? What are the criteria that will be used to evaluate the work that the students submit?

The article provides details on how several faculty took assignments they had used in the past, reviewed them using the three questions, and then implemented improved versions of the assignments in their classes. While some faculty have pushed back on the process, others have found it to be valuable, saying that clarifying the assignment at the outset helps save time in the long run.

This relatively easy technique has proved to have a big impact. “In the classroom, knowing the task, purpose, and criteria can help motivate students and make their courses relevant. In other areas, the information can help them navigate an intimidating system. To Ms. Winkelmes, the protocol helps students meet higher expectations of rigor, which, in turn, can ensure equity in educational quality.”


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com