Transparent Teaching in Action: Sometimes you aren’t as good as you think you are

In the last few months I’ve been interested in transparent teaching. Basically, transparency is a commitment to all of your students to be transparent about your expectations for a class, particularly when it comes to course assignments. Transparent teaching requires being clear and precise about 3 things in an assignment:

  1. Purpose–explain to the students WHY you are asking them to do this assignment.  Don’t just assume they know how it connects to the material.  Talk to them about the skills and knowledge they will gain and how that is relevant to the course, major, program, or other aspects of their lives.
  2. Tasks–be explicit about the tasks students must follow to complete the assignment.  Sometimes we tell our students to ‘write a 5 page essay’ but don’t realize that many of our students might not know what we mean by an essay–it means different things in different fields, and not all of your students will have taken a polisci class before. Of the three areas, this is where we tend to be the most detailed in our assignments, but even here we can probably be more clear about exactly what we want than we area.
  3. Criteria for Success–the students need to know how their work will be evaluated to determine whether they have successfully completed the assignment or not.  This might mean a rubric, or just a list of what you are going to be looking at.  But one of the most important elements–and the one I messed up on–is it provide examples of successful work.  This might be student work, or something written by a professional working in the field. Want students to write a strong literature review? Show them what a strong one looks like, and talk to them about what makes it strong.  Contrast it with unsuccessful or weak work.  Better yet, give them the examples and the rubric, and have THEM score the work, so they understand how the criteria is applied.

Yes, all of that takes time.  But we owe it to our students to give them every chance to achieve success in the work we assign them.  If we think it is valuable for them to do this work, then we need to give them the detail and time it takes so that success is entirely in their hands.  Plus, doing this has wider benefits.

Research by the Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT) team at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas has shown that increasing transparency in our assignments doesn’t just impact their work on those assignments. It leads to big gains in student confidence and sense of belonging in college, particularly for disadvantaged populations who come to college less prepared.  At UNLV, they saw a 20% increase in retention for these students who participated in classes where just two assignments were transformed to become more transparent. I led a project at my university last spring on transparency, and while I’m still evaluating the data, those who participated indicated they found the training sessions and transformation process very useful.  If you want to attend a training on TILT, review their extensive resources, or read the ongoing research, head to their Resources page.

So here I am, someone who has trained on transparent teaching, conducted multiple trainings myself, and doing research in the area.  I’ve also used specifications grading in the past, which is in the transparent teaching wheelhouse.  I’m a pro, right?

Yeah, right.  Every time I think I’ve ‘got’ something when it comes to teaching, I end up learning how much more I have to learn.

I’m teaching a new course this semester called Sex, Marriage, and Violence, and I’m running it largely as a seminar.  Students have to write weekly papers on the readings and pose discussion questions that form the basis for class.  In the syllabus I included a purpose statement for these papers as well as a rubric, and the instructions (I thought) were clear: I wanted a full APA style bibliographic entry for each article or chapter, a 1-2 sentence summary of their main claims or findings, a 500-1000 word analysis of the themes, debates, gaps or issues raised by the readings for the week, and 1-2 discussion questions.

The first papers showed up on Monday, and all but one of them failed to follow this format.  Only a few did the bibliographic entries or summaries; some put the summaries in the main body of the paper (something I explicitly said not to do); only a handful gave discussion questions at the end; and a few wrote essentially annotated bibliographies, with no effort to compare or synthesize the readings.

A couple of students messing up is probably their fault; almost everyone messing up is clearly mine.

The good news is that this is fixable.  Because this is an assignment that starts early and repeats weekly, I was able to catch the problem in week 2.  This is an advantage of using smaller stakes assignments throughout the class–there is less harm to the student if they are completely off base in their efforts, and you have a chance to teach them how to improve. 

To fix this, I recognized a key mistake on my part: while I had provided a rubric, I had not provided an example of successful work.  So I drew up a 2 page outline of a paper.  I didn’t write an entire paper myself.  But the outline showed them the formatting I wanted to see in the paper, such as showing them that I wanted the bibliographic entires and summaries BEFORE the paper proper, and the discussion questions AFTER, not embedded in the text.  And I wrote an example of a thesis statement based on the readings for Week 2 along with a single paragraph showing them how to analyze one of the readings according to that theme.  Drawing up this document took me about an hour, but the students SO appreciated it.  They now had a visual aid to see what I wanted with examples, not just a list of requirements and criteria.  I also allowed them to resubmit their paper by the next class, and throughout the course, will ask students to keep anonymized versions of their work so I will have student-written examples to show future classes.

All of this goes to show that even when you are trying to be transparent, sometimes you might not be able to anticipate what kind of information or models the students need to really understand what you want them to do. When that happens, it is typically OUR fault as instructors, not theirs as students. Now, some students will get it wrong no matter how clear you are, but there are definitely times when we are wrong when we think we are being clear.  I’ve sometimes thought that the ‘provide examples of successful work, and show students why it is successful’ is optional, but on reflection I think this is perhaps the most important thing we can do*. This was an important wake-up call for me that even when I think I’m doing a good job, I can still get it wrong. 

*There are those who question providing examples of successful work lest students simply copy it.  I completely understand the critique, but i think with creativity on our part, this can be overcome. Often I am demonstrating formatting and technique, not content, so as long as you change the content out, there’s little risk of copying.  My go-to example is to make arguments about why cats are better pets than dogs, and I can illustrate the expected structure of an essay, a bibliographic entry or citation, a thesis statement, and using evidence to defend a claim using this very non-political example.

Another point here is that providing a structural template for students who aren’t strong writers is super useful to them.  I’m fine with them imitating my structure–I’m teaching them how to write a strong paper.  I encourage students who have more advanced writing skills to branch away from the suggested structure in my outline/template to find their own style.