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Creating Transparent Assignments

February 20, 2019

By Dr. Lynn Bartels (Psychology)

Do your students express frustration when working on your assignments?  Do they say things like “I didn’t know what you were looking for” or “I had no idea how to even get started?”  If so, then your assignments may be in need of some transparency.  Mary Ann Winklemes of University of Nevada Las Vegas has developed a simple, but effective technique for creating transparent assignments to make them clearer and more meaningful.   

Her technique has been researched across multiple college campus and shown to have powerful effects.  For example, when faculty across campus transformed two assignments following her transparency guidelines, students reported a stronger sense of belonging, academic confidence, and improved mastery of skills that employers value.  Transparency helped all students but especially at-risk students who may be unaware of the unwritten rules of academia (Winkelmes, Bernacki, Butler, ZochowskiGolanics & Harris Weavil, 2016). 

There are three parts of a transparent assignment:  Purpose, Tasks, and Criteria 

1. Purpose

In the Purpose, you should lay out what students should learn from the project and why the project is important.  For example, you might say something like “The purpose of this assignment is for your group to prepare a lab report summarizing the results of your study.”  You should highlight the knowledge and skills to be learned on the project.  For example, as you work on this assignment, you should develop skills in:  teamwork, research, and communication which will be important to you in future courses and in your career.  The goal of the purpose statement is to motivate students to complete the project.

2. Tasks

This section explains to students how to complete the assignment.   You should lay out step by step how to go about completing the project.  Many steps are simply assumed or taken for granted (e.g., proofreading).  Try to spell these out explicitly.  Some steps may be difficult for students and require in class explanation and practice.  You may also need to provide opportunities for feedback along the way, such as deadlines for submitting drafts of parts of the project.  For example, on a paper assignment, you might ask for students to first identify their topic and have it approved, then submit an annotated bibliography to make sure they are identifying appropriate sources, and then submit a draft for feedback.  In some cases, particularly with upper-level students you might feel that it’s important for them to struggle and work out how to approach the task on their own.  If struggling is an expected part of the process, state that so that students don’t assume that struggling is a sign that they don’t belong.

3. Criteria

The final section clarifies how to do excellent work and the standards for high quality work.  This can be accomplished by providing examples of previous students’ work.  It’s helpful to provide examples where you comment on different parts of the work.  Providing a rubric or a grading checklist can also clarify what is meant by high quality work.

Getting Started 

Take a look at your current assignments and assess their transparency.  Check to see whether the three parts of the assignment are clearly communicated.  Review previous students’ work to see where students often run into trouble.  Ask students for feedback to help you see what they find difficult or confusing.  A transparent assignment can lead to important outcomes for your students and you. 

You can learn more about transparency here: 

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