In education, transparency is typically described as making teaching and learning visible. “Transparent teaching involves making the implicit explicit for students so they understand why they are engaged in certain tasks and what role the course plays in their learning journey,” according to a recent ACE report (iii). I’ve been reading and thinking about how transparency applies to assignments.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n education, transparency is typically described as making teaching and learning visible. “Transparent teaching involves making the implicit explicit for students so they understand why they are engaged in certain tasks and what role the course plays in their learning journey,” according to a recent ACE report (iii). I’ve been reading and thinking about how transparency applies to assignments.
Frequently, students see assignments as things teachers have them do in order to give grades. They don’t usually see assignments as learning experiences and they think what makes assignments so challenging is figuring out what the teacher wants. Early on in their college careers, students learn that different teachers have different rules and expectations for assignments—requiring different fonts, margin sizes, and citation formats, use (or not) of first person, ways of using evidence, stating (or not) their opinions, summarizing or taking a position, using arguments, critical thinking and/or reasons supported with evidence. From students’ perspective these requirements can seem like personal preferences of the teacher. I think this explains why students are so dogged in their efforts to find out what the teacher wants before they’ll even begin working on an assignment.
And yet, many faculty think students should be able to figure out for themselves what the assignment is asking them to do, especially when they aren’t beginning students. Providing detailed answers to those “what do you want” questions ends up compromising the rigor of the assignment. At some point in their academic careers, the argument goes, shouldn’t students be able to write a paper that looks professional and sounds appropriate given the disciplinary context?
Transparency in assignments means being clear about what the assignment is asking students to do, but it isn’t simply specifying the details and mechanics. The educational rationale behind the assignment also needs to be understood by students. What justifies having them work in groups, take exams, write papers, or prepare online resources? I remember asking my students why they thought I had them working in groups and the first response was, “You didn’t have time to prepare a lecture.” Initially, I thought that was an attempt at humor. I wasn’t so sure the third time I heard it. Could it be that students tackle most assignments without much motivation or effort because they don’t see any good reason beyond the grade for doing the assignment? [perfectpullquote align="right" bordertop="true" cite="" link="" color="" class="" size=""]Could it be that students tackle most assignments without much motivation or effort because they don’t see any good reason beyond the grade for doing the assignment?[/perfectpullquote]
So, while transparency needs to make visible the “why” behind the assignment, there’s also the “what”—what students will learn by doing the assignment. If they’re serious about doing it, they’ll learn something about the content. Occasionally, while doing an assignment, a student discovers an interest in the content. It may not happen as often as we’d like, but it does happen. Then the motivation might be found in what can be learned from the process. At this point those writing about transparency recommend connecting assignments to learning outcomes. I wish we could bust out of the antiseptically descriptive language of outcomes, goals, and objectives and talk more directly about how most assignments give students the chance to practice important professional skills. Assignments are preparations for life. . .well, I’m not sure how many multiple-choice exams happen in life. But answering questions, sharing what you know, considering different answer options, knowing when you don’t know something and need to find out—those are all skills developed with practice and exams do provide that practice.
And finally, there’s the quality issue—how will their work be assessed? Transparency advocates argue that students should know those criteria before they start working. Understanding how a product or performance will be judged clarifies where efforts should be focused. If a paper is to demonstrate critical thinking and students understand what that is, then they can direct their efforts toward that goal. They won’t be summarizing, sharing a personal experience, or randomly inserting quotations. They’ll be trying to give the teacher what she wants—reasoned critical analysis.
So yes, we need to make assignments clear, with more detailed delineations in early courses and less in those taken later. Transparency also means being explicit about the educational rationale for requirements and those processes that enable students to meet those requirements. Finally, it’s about taking the guesswork out of how the work will be assessed. When an assignment is transparent, it’s easier for students to see that it’s a learning experience.
Reference: Jankowski, N. A. (2017). Unpackaging relationships: Instruction and student outcomes. American Council of Education (ACE).