Do Students Know What We Want?

Describing the Qualities of Successful Work

Communicating our expectations to students is a challenging part of teaching. We’re often trying to help people who may be totally unfamiliar with the types of work we assign to understand what it means to do that work well. As an analogy, this task is like describing the qualities of an outstanding resume to someone who’s never written a resume at all, and possibly never seen one.

Sometimes our descriptions of what we’re looking for can seem vague to students. For example, they might wonder: What does it mean to have a “strong thesis”? What does it mean to “include critical thinking”? What does it mean to “show our steps” when solving a problem? As experts, it’s our role to unpack and define what we’re looking for so that students can understand it.

On our own or with colleagues, we can think through the aspects of the work that are most important, really dig into what kinds of intellectual and other tasks we’re asking students to do, and get specific about what it means to do it well. The TILT Higher Ed project provides excellent resources for doing this, with examples from various disciplines, including communication, psychology, math, science, and others.

We can also think about which aspects or tasks align with the learning goals and priorities for the course, so we can emphasize them appropriately. More of the grade, more of students’ time, and more of our attention should be focused on the priorities for learning. There may even be some aspects of a project that aren’t necessary to grade at all. For example, if you’re having students reflect on an experience in a short video, the specificity of their reflection might be relevant, but the quality of the video production might not be. The evaluation criteria, checklist for success, rubric, specifications or other approach to communicating the expectations should clearly reflect the priorities.

Of course, for someone who hasn’t written, or perhaps even seen, a resume, just a list of clear evaluation criteria won’t be enough for them to learn how to do a good job of writing one. They need to see a variety of examples, and analyze, evaluate, and discuss them. They need to try drafting their own resume and get some feedback, and they need opportunities to revise and improve. Helping students really understand what success looks like involves bringing the evaluation criteria to life through examples, and allowing students to apply the criteria to their own work in progress, so that they can improve.

Students can even be invited to help write evaluation criteria. Continuing with our resume example, you could provide four or five resumes, all with different strengths and weaknesses, and invite the class to first analyze them—identifying the different components, describing how these components can vary, and discussing how they add up to a whole— and then evaluate them, explaining why they think one approach is more effective than another. As they do this, you or they could be generating a list of criteria and making it as clear as possible. Then, you can add your expert perspective and connect back to the learning goals and priorities to revise and finalize the list.

If you’d like support in making evaluation criteria more transparent for students, or in devising activities to help them understand and apply the criteria, please reach out to us for a consultation at We look forward to working with you!


Teaching with OneNote Class Notebook

Wednesday, March 22nd | 1:00 – 2:30 p.m. | Zimmerman Instruction Room, Strozier Library, Room 107A

The CAT and ODL will present a hands-on skillshop on using the OneNote Class Notebook in your classrooms. You will experience the system as a student, and then have the opportunity to set it up for use as a teacher with live technical help available from the ODL team. Learn how this system helps with student learning, note-taking, formative assessment, practice & feedback, and even with solving math problems! While it is not a replacement for Canvas or graded assignments, it provides a streamlined way of doing in-class activities—individual and group. Learn about the tools and options available, get your questions answered, and potentially be a part of a new learning community. Both pedagogical and technological aspects will be covered.

Seats are limited, so reserve your spot now. Anyone who teaches is welcome to attend.