What's the point (of this assignment)?

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If you're reading this, I'm guessing you put a lot of time, thought, and effort into the assignments you create for each of your courses. We know why we've asked our students to do the assignments, but do they? In the Chronicles of Higher Education article, The Unwritten Rules of College Success, Mary-Ann Winkelmes suggests that our students will learn more and do better if they can answer three questions about the assignments we ask our students to do. She refers this deliberate approach as academic transparency for our students.

1) What specifically is the assignment asking the student to do (TASK)?

2) Why is the assignment relevant for the student within the context of this course (PURPOSE)?

3) How will the student know they are doing well on the assignment (Criteria)?

The article describes how being very deliberate about answering these three questions has helped several professors rethink and shape their courses, as well as how it has been instrumental in helping first-generation college students be more successful. As with any idea, there are two-sides to consider and the article also discusses other areas that need to be considered in a more holistic view when preparing and delivering a course.

Does research have anything to say about the use of academic transparency and student learning and performance? In the Spring 2013 edition of Liberal Education, a publication of the Association of American Colleges & Universities, Mary-Ann Winkelmes reported on a large study (students N=25,000, courses N=160, institutions N=27, and countries N=7) conducted to examine the effects of promoting students' understanding of how they learn and help faculty gather and share data about student learning. In the article, Transparency in Teaching, she describes the project and shares the outcomes as they relate to class size, type of courses (STEM, Humanities, etc.), and types of students (traditional/non-traditional), as well as references for further reading and clarification.

In the article, the specific elements that were found to be helpful for specific groups (class size, course, student type) is discussed, there are a few items that were found to be helpful across many of the groups. Please see the article for specific recommendations.

Elements that were helpful for many groups:

  • Discuss assignments' learning goals and design rationale before students begin each assignment.
  • Gauge students' understanding during class via peer work on questions that require students to apply concepts you've taught.
  • Debrief graded tests and assignments in class.

Although many of us do these thing already, I found it interesting to revisit my assignments and consider if I was clear enough on describing the task, purpose, and criteria. Did I spend enough time discussing assignments in class, using formative assessment to gauge students' ability to apply concepts, and discuss graded material and how meeting criteria was demonstrated? The next time I teach, I'm going to use part of my time with students to discuss the assignments and let the students tell me if they understand what they are supposed to do, why they are doing it, and how they will know they are doing a good job, and then make more adjustments based on their feedback. I look forward to doing this.

Please share your experiences with us. I'd love to hear about how it's going and what else you'd recommend.

About the Author
Dr. Yamazaki has been involved in adult education since the mid-1980's. She has developed technology-based education for the Air Force, commercial industry, and for higher education. She is certified in instruction systems design. She has taught courses for the Air Force and at community college, college, and university institutions. She was awarded the teaching excellence award at the US Air Force Academy as an instructor for the behavioral sciences. In her work with Macmillan Higher Education, she works with educators and editorial to consult on the development of educational products, services, and experiences for higher education.