Transparency in Course Design
College coursework can come with many unwritten rules, and failure to understand these rules or even know what they are can create the perception that students are not cut out for college. Transparency is a way to make academic expectations and the learning process more visible. Transparent pedagogy supports:
- Designing more intentional, equitable courses and assignments
- Engaging students in the thought behind those design choices
- Helping students think metacognitively about how and why they are learning what they are
One model that promotes transparency, the Transparency Framework, is an initiative led by Dr. Mary-Ann Winkelmes through TILT (Transparency in Learning and Teaching) Higher Ed that advocates for articulating three elements in assignments: purpose, task, and criteria for success. A national study, conducted by TILT Higher Ed and the AAC&U, found that even a small teaching intervention, such as using the Transparency Framework on two assignments in a course, increases academic confidence, belonging, and motivation (Winkelmes et al., 2016).
These gains were even more pronounced with first-generation and historically underserved populations, as the intervention demystifies both the learning process and how the assignment would benefit students in the class and beyond. A later study connected these benefits to persistence: students who developed more academic confidence and sense of belonging in their first-year courses were also more likely to be retained (Recent findings, 2019).
Online students, who have less access to spontaneous discussion about assignments, may especially benefit from transparent course design when these methods are used throughout the course. Transparent teaching methods, such explicitly communicating assignment expectations, naming criteria for success, and encouraging “interactive transparency,” where students have space to ask questions and converse with the instructor and other students, can reinforce understanding and improve outcomes (Howard et al., 2020; Kirschner, 2021). Online instructors can invite this kind of transparent asynchronous conversation through open discussion boards or shared documents for questions about the course.
Applying the Transparency Framework
The transparent assignment template, developed by Dr. Winkelmes and TILT Higher Ed, focuses on explicitly articulating why students are doing an assignment, what they will do to complete it, and how they will be evaluated. Consider these questions when applying this framework to assignments:
- Purpose: What will learners get out of completing the assignment? What skills or knowledge will they gain? How does the assignment support course outcomes? How will the skills or knowledge gained transfer beyond the classroom to a future career?
- Task: What are the instructions for the assignment or steps for completing it? What are learners expected to do? What are the minimum requirements?
- Criteria for Success: How will learners be graded for the assignment? How will they know if their work meets standards? What are some examples that demonstrate what the evaluator is looking for?
How Ultra Tools Can Help
Blackboard Ultra has some tools that support assignment transparency:
- Purpose: Show how the assignment aligns with course or program outcomes by clicking on “Align with goals” in assignment settings.
- Task: Invite dialogue and questions on an assignment by clicking on “Allow class conversations” in assignment settings.
- Criteria for success: Create a Rubric to help learners self-assess before submitting.
Connection to Online Course Development
Transparent course design is a cornerstone in course development best practices. It aligns with several Quality Matters (QM) Standards, especially across General Standards 1, 2, and 3 (Specific Review). It also directly supports several of the Marshall University Hybrid Course Checklist Goals such as:
- Course Design 1B: Articulate, in language that is clear to all learners, the measurable course-level learner outcomes that can be segmented into distinct learning units or modules
- Course Design 1C: Communicate how course content, technology tools, and learning activities support the course-level outcomes
- Engagement 2E: Provide learners with multiple means of engaging content in active, meaningful ways
- Assessment 4A: Design measurable assessments that align with course outcomes and are appropriate for the level of the course
- Assessment 4B: Articulate the purpose of assessments and the transparent criteria for evaluating learner work
Transparent Teaching and First-Generation College Students—Vanderbilt University
Howard, T. O., Winkelmes, M.-A., & Shegog, M. (2020). Transparency teaching in the virtual classroom: assessing the opportunities and challenges of integrating transparency teaching methods with online learning. Journal of Political Science Education, 16(2), 198–211. https://search-ebscohost-com.marshall.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eue&AN=144282686&site=ehost-live
Kirschner, J. (2021). Transparency in Online Pedagogy: A Critical Analysis of Changing Modalities. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 76(4), 439–447. https://go.exlibris.link/jfxnJcSj
Recent findings. (2019). TILT Higher Ed. https://tilthighered.com/assets/pdffiles/Recent%20Findings.pdf
Specific Review Standards from the QM Higher Education Rubric. (2020) Quality Matters. StandardsfromtheQMHigherEducationRubric.pdf (qualitymatters.org)
Winkelmes, Mary-Ann. (2023). Tilt higher ed. TILT Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://tilthighered.com/
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. https://go.exlibris.link/6NzldHtt