Transparent Assignments: A Proven Tool for Equity and Success

If you have ever received a set of student assignments and said to yourself, “this isn’t what I was expecting,” you are not alone. It’s common for faculty to feel that students haven’t followed instructions, produced a high quality of work, or understood the point of the assignment. Student achievement slips and faculty frustration increases.

Fortunately, there is a solution – empirically proven! – that helps mitigate all these problems, and has been shown to be especially significant for minoritized, first-generation, and economically underprivileged students.

Transparent Design: How to Do It

Simply put, transparent design is a method for making assignments clearer. Clarity sounds like a straightforward goal, but it might not mean what you think it means! The aim of transparent assignment design is partly to make expectations clear, but it also means helping students see the assignment as a component in a bigger picture, including how it contributes to course outcomes. In addition, transparency can help students see the relevance of the work for them, which may help with engagement.

Transparent assignments should ensure students understand three things before beginning the assignment:

  • Purpose
  • Task
  • Criteria

Purpose means why the assignment matters and how it connects to the rest of the class. How does the assignment (or any kind of assessment; this applies to tests too) build on the work so far? What does it prepare students to do? Why should they (as learners and people) care?

Task means what the student is supposed to do. Are they writing a paper? If so, what question or questions should they be investigating? How long should it be? Are they required to use outside sources and include a bibliography? Or for an audio or video interview project, how should they identify an interviewee? What should the interview address? How long should the finished product be? Do they need to submit a complete transcript?

In the CLT, we sometimes see assignment descriptions in which the faculty member offers interesting thoughts as a way to prompt the students’ own considerations of the topic, but never explicitly says what the task is. Laying out the parameters of the task is a more consistent recipe for student success, and makes grading simpler.

Criteria means how the assignment will be graded. A rubric, distributed to students in advance, is an excellent way to communicate criteria. However, even a simple statement of the grading breakdown, late policy, and required mechanics gives students a significant assist. As a bonus, clearly developing your criteria in advance will help you grade much more efficiently, with less backtracking to make sure you are evaluating students fairly relative to each other. 

You can use this model in many contexts. It can guide the discussion you have verbally in class with your students about an upcoming assignment. A very brief version might appear as the instructions on a test. And, most commonly, it can be used to structure the written description of an assignment. 

When you create an assignment description, try using these three items as headings to organize the information you give students. You may be surprised at the things it prompts you to think about. Using this structure for every assignment also helps your students build a consistent sense of your expectations throughout the course. Here’s an example of a transparent assignment description for a significant summative assignment (Champlain users only). Here’s a much simpler example for a shorter, lower-stakes assignment (Champlain users only).

The Evidence: Transparent Design and Equity

College involves both stated and unstated expectations. We clearly state major requirements, prerequisites, outcomes, and grading schemes (or if we don’t, we should). But we often don’t explain what a syllabus is, what office hours are for, or what the basic expectations are for certain kinds of assignments. For students who went to high schools with strong college preparation, have family members who know how college works, and have time to navigate our unstated expectations, this often doesn’t cause a problem. For students whose high schools did not prepare them to write an essay, who are the first in their families to ever experience college, or who have to work while studying, unstated expectations can be major roadblocks to success and retention. 

Research by TILT Higher Ed (the Transparency in Learning and Teaching project) shows that transparent design can have a significant impact on retention, success, and confidence for these groups of students. While it has a positive effect for all students, the effect is more significant for students who are non-White, first-generation students, and non-traditional students (Winkelmes 2013 – Champlain login required for this link; bibliographic information below). Transparent design also helps mitigate some executive function challenges, like difficulty getting started, feeling overwhelmed, and having trouble making connections between an assignment and the “big picture” of a course or program.

We recommend giving the model a try, and reflecting on changes you see in student success and confidence, how well submitted assignments match what you asked for, and your grading load!

Further Reading

Northeastern Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning Through Research. 2020. “Transparent Assignment Design: Communicate Purpose, Task, Criteria”. Accessed February 22, 2022. https://learning.northeastern.edu/transparent-assignment-design/.

Winkelmes, Mary-Ann. 2013. “Transparency in Teaching: Faculty Share Data and Improve Students’ Learning.” Liberal Education 99, no. 2. EBSCO.

WSU Office of Assessment for Curricular Effectiveness. 2020. “Quick Guide to Transparent Assignment Design”. Accessed February 22, 2022. https://ace.wsu.edu/documents/2018/04/transparent-assignment-design-quick-guide.pdf/ 

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