By Kasey Christopher, Ph.D., Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Duquesne University
As a biology professor, I like to imagine that the relevance of my subject matter is indisputable. Don’t we all? Unfortunately, I don’t always clarify how the focused exercises I ask students to do will translate into the “big picture” learning objectives I expect them to meet. It may be obvious to a student why abilities to hypothesize or interpret experimental data are useful in any career; it is decidedly less clear how writing about the appearance of worms in a petri dish serves these goals.
When I joined the Duquesne faculty in Fall 2015, I had little experience designing assessments. My instructions were rarely as clear as I thought. I failed to provide a context for what I was asking and for what students could hope to gain from completing the assignment, other than a grade. I tweaked assignments to increase clarity, but lacked the tools for dramatic improvement until I attended a 2016 Duquesne CTE workshop on Transparent Assignment Design presented by Mary-Ann Winkelmes. This workshop revolutionized my approach to assignments, with little additional effort on my part. The tenets and inclusive nature of Transparent Assignment Design have been discussed on the Flourishing Academic before, so I won’t rehash them here. Briefly, transparent assignments are constructed with three key components: purpose, task, and criteria for success. This lies in stark contrast with the more traditional approach of providing only the task, perhaps with a rubric attached for higher-stakes assignments.
At the workshop, I practiced applying these principles to an assignment in which I asked students to examine mutant roundworms and speculate as to the developmental basis of their defects. When I gave the original version of the assignment, many students struggled with understanding how to guess the cause of the worms’ appearance. I refined the new “transparent” version of the assignment and put it into practice the next semester. (The original and redesigned assignments have been submitted to the TILT Higher Ed project and are accessible here: https://tilthighered.com/assets/pdffiles/Example%20E.pdf.)
I was shocked at the results; by simply mentioning that learning to make observations and hypotheses was part of the key goal, and providing a successful sample response, I avoided the vast majority of confused student questions. Concurrently, the depth of thought that students put into their hypotheses increased noticeably.
Since attending Dr. Winkelmes’s workshop, I have incorporated this paradigm into every assignment I give. I believe the benefits to students are twofold: (1) Detailed criteria for success lead to improved clarity of expectations, showing students what I am asking them to do. (2) A specific purpose fosters deeper appreciation of the value of the assignment, explaining why I am asking them to do this and motivating students to spend more time thinking about their work. In particular, breaking the purpose into knowledge and skills (Figure 1) emphasizes that the activities are useful not just for learning this specific content, but for honing skills that will be broadly applicable throughout college and postgraduate careers.
From my perspective, the perks to faculty are impressive. It has made grading easier: fewer students completely miss the mark, while more adhere to the appropriate formatting and style. Coupled with demonstrated evidence of the student outcomes (Winkelmes et al., 2016), this would be sufficient motivation to use this assignment structure. However, I have noticed further indirect gains. First, by removing the confusion about basic requirements, I find that students worry less about what their assignment should look like, focusing more energy on content. I relish responding to questions about the impact of various mutations rather than about whether they must re-type the questions. Additionally, putting the purpose into writing forces me to think carefully about designing assignments that truly help students meet learning objectives. Creating specific criteria for success helps me anticipate common problems, thinking preemptively about what constitutes a good response.
Dr. Winkelmes and her colleagues have published strong evidence about the positive learning impact of showing students what you expect of them and why you are asking them to do specific tasks. My experience suggests that as educators, asking ourselves the same questions can have a deep impact on teaching without drastic changes to our courses or large impositions on our time.
Christopher, K. (2016) Sample E: C. elegans Mutant Phenotypes Assignment. Retrieved from TILT Higher Ed Examples and Resources. https://tilthighered.com/tiltexamplesandresources
Winkelmes, M., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J., & Weavil, K. H. (2016). A teaching intervention that increases underserved college students’ success. Peer Review, 18(1), 31-36. Retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/peerreview/2016/winter-spring/Winkelmes