Transparent Design is a model of designing and presenting course assessments that maximizes clarity and equity while avoiding unspoken expectations. This widely studied model has been shown to improve student outcomes related to course success, confidence, and retention, especially for students from marginalized backgrounds.
Just as Universal Design for Learning focuses on accessibility as a default, Transparent Design emphasizes removing barriers to understanding how to succeed on an assignment by default. While these strategies are particularly useful for equity, they help everyone.
Transparent Design is most effective for non-test assessments such as projects, papers, labs, reflections, and the like. However, the spirit of Transparent Design can also make your tests, exams, and even your syllabus more useful and understandable for students.
Transparent Design assumes that in order to be successful on an assignment, students need to understand three things:
- What has this got to do with what we’re learning, and how is it going to fit into mastering what I need to know or be able to do? Why should I care?
- What exactly do I need to do to be successful? What am I producing?
- How will I be evaluated and how will that affect my performance in the class as a whole?
In the Transparent Design model, these three things are often referred to as Purpose, Task, and Criteria.
How to Create a Transparent Assignment
The CLT sometimes sees assignment descriptions that have a lot of prompting thoughts but no actual instructions. We also see rubrics that are only tangentially related to the most time-consuming or useful parts of an assignment. In cases like these, the faculty member does not yet know what they want students to do and how they will assess it.
To be able to create a transparent assignment, you first need to know what you are asking students to do and why. Consider these questions:
- What outcomes does this assess?
- What exactly do you want students to produce? How will that demonstrate the outcomes?
- How does it fit into the broader scope of the course? (Consider connections to past and future assessments, scaffolding, and content.)
- How are you going to evaluate it?
- How much work is it going to take students to successfully complete it, and is that workload appropriate for the assignment’s significance in the course?
Not all of those questions are about Purpose, Task, and Criteria, but they provide information that’s necessary for you to make sure you are designing the assessment you think you’re designing. To go to the next step — writing a transparent description — you need to be clear for yourself about what the assignment is. (This also makes grading much easier and fairer.)
How to Write a Transparent Assignment Description
The easiest way to create a transparent assignment description is simply to follow the outline of Purpose, Task, and Criteria.
Purpose should be a two to three sentence explanation, in plain language, of how the assessment fits into the course so far and where your students are headed as learners. It does not have to be complicated. Some examples:
- “In this course so far, we have discussed several case studies of religious activism, using theories of religion and public space to help us understand them. Religious activism is constantly evolving, so in this assignment, you will identify a recent example that’s interesting to you and apply the analytical process we’ve used in our class discussions to it.”
- “In this week’s reading, you encountered new terminology related to the legal concept of torts. This concept is foundational for understanding civil law throughout the rest of the course. This homework asks you to explore those terms in more depth, by both explaining them and identifying real-life examples.”
- “Our lecture on Monday covered the basics of the physics of motion. In this assignment, you will practice calculating velocity using physical objects (for which you’ll be given some basic information) and a stopwatch. The differences between the objects and how they behave will be important when we talk about air resistance on Thursday.”
If you have scaffolded assignments, this is an opportunity to make it clear how they build on each other.
Task is usually the longest part of the assessment description. It should tell students very clearly what they need to do. (The depth of these instructions might vary depending on your discipline, the students’ existing expertise, how unusual the assessment method is, or other factors.) Your task section should include:
- What the students are expected to produce and the parameters of the thing (for example, an essay of 750-850 words, typed, double-spaced, written without use of AI)
- What question(s) they should answer, what problem(s) they should solve, or what they should create
- In some cases, the steps they should take to get there
- The due date (here or in the Criteria section)
Here are some examples, one for a simple, low-stakes assessment, and one for a more complex, summative assessment:
- Law class homework assignment (Champlain login required)
- Humanities essay assignment (Champlain login required)
Criteria is a clear explanation of how students will be evaluated. That includes
- The point value
- Optionally, the impact of that value on the final grade
- When it is due and what happens if it is late
- A breakdown of the value of different parts of the task
The “gold standard” of transparently expressing criteria is a rubric, but creating a rubric in advance is not always feasible or appropriate for a given assignment. It is fine to simply note how points will be allotted, as in the examples above.