After hearing about different perspectives on empowering learning during the panel on day one of TeachWeek, I was eager to hear from the keynote speaker. (The prospect of complimentary lunch didn't hurt either.) This year's keynote speaker was Dr. Mary-Ann Winkelmes from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). Her research focuses on transparency in higher education, which was also the title of her talk: Teaching with Transparency: Empowering Equitable Learning.
Transparency is a buzzword in higher education, to the point where I had become confused by what the word actually means. (I also have a horribly poor vocabulary, which doesn't help.) If you hit up Wikipedia, transparency "implies openness, communication, and accountability." However, in some education circles, transparency starts to sound like hand-holding. Hence I admit I was skeptical going into the talk because how can education be empowering when students are being carried through their assignments? I'm glad that my considering an extreme idea of transparency wasn't enough to turn me away from the talk. (Bonus: the has a reputation for having great food at its events.)
Dr. Winkelmes opened up by describing where education isn't equitable. Most of what she described focused on minority groups or students from low-income families, especially those who were first generation college students. Even though access to higher learning is increasingly equitable, actual experiences in higher education are not. The reason for this is that even the most well-prepared novices don't (or perhaps, can't) think like experts, something often expected of college students. Not all first-year college students have the same backgrounds, and not all students are able to catch up to the rest because their background hasn't given them access to resources like good role models for succeeding. Sure, college admissions are more accessible now than ever, and enrollment is up. But what is not as accessible is the ability to adapt to a college environment.
At this point in the talk, I'm clenching my jaw a bit because I'm expecting a call to foster student "growth" by holding their hands. I'm waiting for annecdotes of allowing students to re-submit work until they get it right. I'm dreading being encouraged to spell everything out for students. But the call to hold students' hands never comes.
Instead of discussing how to design assignments such that all the heavy-lifting is done by the instructors, Dr. Winkelmes describes a different idea, one that—now—seems so obvious: instructors and students talking about why and the reasons for how they are learning content. This is something I do for myself as a student already; this is something I try to do for my own students when they have questions; this is how I motivate myself. And yet it never occurred to me that students not understanding why they are completing an assignment could have a strongly negative impat on their learning. Come on! As a former math TA, I of all people should know that one of the biggest barriers to students learning math is the question, When am I going to actually use this in the real world?
I never considered that students not understanding the purpose or outcomes of an assignment could make them feel excluded, even after feeling disconnected from a course (cough, thermo, cough) by not knowing anything from how grades were assigned (I might have done better if I had known the prof was grading harshly with the intent to curve the course rather than assuming my failing every problem set meant I should rethink being a chemistry major) to how I could implement material into my own research pursuits. It was a crummy feeling then, and I cannot imagine how this would impact a student who experiences this in nearly every facet of their undergraduate career. All of a sudden, poor retention rates among students whose education may not be as accessible makes sense.
So what did Dr. Winkelmes and her colleagues do? They experimented by having control groups (students in courses where assignments were given as they always had been) and "treatment groups" (students in courses where assignments were adjusted to be more transparent). So far, results of these experiments (based on surveys from students in these courses) show that transparency in assignments does things like help with collaborative thinking or improve writing skills in STEM fields. Furthermore, Dr. Winkelmes found that "if you boost confidence, boost belonging, you boost retention rates." Retention rates for students who enrolled in courses where assignments were more transparent were higher than for those who weren't enrolled in such courses. The most striking results were for minority groups, sometimes boosting retention rates from the 60% range up into the 90-95% range.
Even more astounding to me was that the improvement of student engagement in "transparent" courses was not the result of the courses becoming easier to achieve better accessibility. In many cases, the actual tasks set forth in the assignments did not change. So what did? At the top of prompts for transparent assignments, instructors outlined the purpose of the assignment (including skills and knowledge that would be obtained), and at the end, criteria for success (including annotated examples, lists of characteristics of successful work, how excellent work could be distinguished from adequate work). In the middle of these additions, the tasks remained virtually unchanged.
By outlining the purpose of the assignment and the criteria for success, faculty did what not all students are capable of, especially at the introductory level. Students were no longer able to ask why an assignment was useful, no longer questioning how to determine whether their work was good enough, no longer feeling as if they were completely lost and alone. By understanding these things, students reported feeling more connected to their coursework and the benefits of that showed in their performance in the course as well as in overall retention rates from freshman to sophomore year. Additionally, I think that by considering the purpose of assignments, students will be able to more critically analyze future prompts to discern things like skills and knowledge to be gained as well as criteria for success. I recall several of my teachers doing this for me in high school, and I think that was a major part in my ability to do it on my own in college.
I was so excited by these insights that I decided to stay for the workshop afterwards, talking about how I could make assignments more transparent and accessible to my own students. The major insights I took away from Dr. Winkelmes talk were:
- Making assignments more accessible does not mean making assignments easier.
- Students have different backgrounds in course material, but they also have been taught to think of assignments differently (some see assignments as tasks to be done/busy work, others understand the skills to gained in a learning experience).
- There is more equity in college admissions than in college experiences.
- We (myself included) need to break away from the mentality that students are either cut out for higher education or they aren't. Just because a student hasn't understood the purpose of the assignment doesn't mean they're lazy and haven't tried; they might have never been shown how to see assignments as learning experiences or have learned how to distinguish between adequate work and excellent work.
If you are interested in transparency in learning and teaching in higher education and would like to learn more, there are publicly available resources from UNLV. I encourage you to check it out, and—if you are a teacher—think of how you can make your course more accessible (but not less challenging!) to your students, regardless of their experiences before stepping into your classroom.
The comments on this post are not endorsed by Caltech or by the Caltech Center for Teaching, Learning and Outreach. I have stayed true to the message of the speaker in the described lecture to the best of my knowledge, but I acknowledge that I have also incorporated my own opinions and ideas.