Rebecca Cepek, Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of English, Duquesne University
This reminded me that students often do not understand the value of an assignment, especially first-generation college students, who often find themselves overwhelmed by minutiae that traditional students easily navigate. How to read a syllabus, paper prompt, or rubric are hurdles that must be cleared before they can even think about completing the assignment itself.
First-generation students are thus often doing twice the work of traditional students before they even begin an assignment. If, at this point, students cannot see or understand how these assignments align with their overall educational, career, or personal goals, they are likely to become discouraged, and to question why they are learning about parallelograms—or poetry—rather than something that seems more practical.
Transparent assignment design addresses this issue by explicitly communicating the skills and knowledge that students will acquire or increase through completion of the assignment. These skills are articulated as both discipline-specific and “real world” skills.
For example, a transparently designed close reading of a poem explains that students will gain and improve skills in understanding and analyzing literary texts and analyzing how literary devices help create meaning in texts, as well as critical reading and comprehension of complex texts.
Furthermore, transparent assignment design also requires an explanation of when and how these skills will be used. For this assignment, I explain that the ability to comprehend and analyze difficult texts is a skill that they will find necessary in other classes, and also one that will be essential to their success, both personal and professional, outside of academia. Mastering the analysis of poetry specifically, which is often dense and multilayered, will prepare them for any similar texts they may encounter and will help them come to an understanding and appreciation of the many nuances and levels of language.
This type of transparency is particularly useful for students who cannot see the connections between reading a poem and reading a report. Indeed, many students struggle to make these connections, but it is of paramount importance for first-generation students who need to be reassured that the benefits of higher education are worth the sacrifices – emotional, personal, and financial – that they are making to pursue that education.
In addition to helping first-generation students understand the value of assignments, it also aids in the successful completion of those assignments. This requires a change from what Mary-Ann Winkelmes, creator of transparent assignment design, calls “a ‘gatekeeper’ perspective,” the mistaken idea “that if a student can’t figure out the unwritten but implied purposes, tasks, and criteria for an assignment, that student shouldn’t succeed in the course and shouldn’t continue in the discipline.”
Instead, transparent assignment design lays out the steps needed to complete an assignment in a simple and easy to understand way, explaining terms (such as close reading) that are often unfamiliar to first-generation students. This is crucial to the success of students, who hesitate to ask for help, especially for understanding something that it seems like all of their peers already understand.
In my experiences with freshman composition, transparent assignment design has been immensely helpful for both traditional and nontraditional students alike. It has also forced me to articulate the value not only of my assignments but of my discipline, as well as how my chosen discipline is interconnected with other disciplines. Finally, transparent assignment design is a minor change that instructors can make, with huge benefits for everyone, but especially for first-generation students. Because ultimately, it is always parallelogram season.