How often have you read through a batch of student work, wondering how they managed to miss the point of an assignment you’d explained so clearly? Because we’ve all acquired expert blind spots in our respective fields, what seems so obvious to us is often a mystery to our students, who may spend all semester trying to figure out what each professor “wants.”
Students will learn more, and we’ll be better satisfied with their work, when we help them to focus their cognitive resources on the task at hand, rather than squandering energy trying to decipher the instructions. The TILTprogram has developed a Transparent Assignment Template that helps us define assignments and our expectations more clearly for students.
Making assignments more transparent can improve student motivation: it can help them see the value in what they are doing, and show them how to succeed if they work hard (Ambrose et al, 2010). It has also been demonstrated to reduce achievement gaps, putting minoritized and first-generation students on the same footing with those who already know the ropes (Winkelmes, 2016).
The template helps us make explicit (for ourselves and for our students) three important aspects of each assignment: the purpose, the task, and the criteria for success.
- What is the instructional purpose of this assignment? What knowledge and skills will students gain from doing it?
- Why complete it at this point in the course? How does it relate to other coursework and assessments?
- How are the knowledge and skills gained significant beyond the course: in later courses, a career, or in life?
- What exactly do you want students to do, perform, or create?
- What kind of thinking should the task involve?
- Will students understand your description of the task? What concepts or processes need to be defined?
- What is the process for completing the task? When and how should students complete each step? What support or resources might they need to do so?
- What does successful performance look like?
- What are the characteristics of an excellent final product?
- Where can students find annotated examples? How can they analyze and evaluate examples themselves?
Some of our colleagues have shared a concern that making instructions and standards too explicit may stifle students’ creativity, but transparency does not mean reducing an assignment to a checklist, and students insist that they produce their best work when they have a clearer understanding of the assignment.
If you’d like to revise your project descriptions, the examples and resources on the TILT website (including sample assignments that are and are not transparent) may be very useful. You might also consult your best focus group: your students. For more ideas, please consider joining us on Monday, September 17, from 12-2, for our Learning-Centered Assignment Design workshop, or sign up for the Engaging Ideas reading group. We can also provide individual support as you generate great assignments and in-class exercises, so please contact us with your questions. We look forward to working with you!