Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Impacting Students for a Lifetime - Part 5

Continued blog post series by Sally Heilstedt, Associate Dean of Instruction - Engagement and Learning at LWIT 


Practice Paradox

The last of the 4 Connections is Practice Paradox. In the paraphrased words of Don Wood, VP of Institutional Effectiveness at Odessa College, faculty who are masters of paradox set clear, high expectations and then are reasonable human beings when issues arise in students’ lives. In the world of advising and student services, we often referred to this as high expectations/high support. The term paradox may be a bit hyperbolic, but it communicates the challenge of setting supportive boundaries and demonstrating supportive flexibility.

Let’s focus on setting clear, high expectations. The only measure of good teaching is student learning (Dr. Bob Mohrbacher, President, Centralia College). We must never expect less-than for students to demonstrate that they have met the learning outcomes for the course. Often, however, our assignments/assessments measure something other than students’ abilities related to outcomes – they measure students’ abilities to read our minds or to work the college system. Clear, high expectations allow us to equitably measure student learning. One of the best ways I have found to do this is to use transparent assignment design. Give it a try.

Designing Transparent Assignments


This activity prepares faculty to utilize the Transparency Framework, an assignment design template developed at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. The framework improves clarity of expectations and results in increased student success.

Think of a typical class. What does your grade distribution look like for most assignments? In my initial years of teaching, it often looked something like this:

Line graph of bimodal distribution of student grades on a sample assignment.

Extreme Honesty Warning: I would look at the grade distribution and think, “Well, like always, there are the good students and the bad students.” That thought process is rightfully challenged by the Transparency Framework. The framework encourages faculty to approach students with a capacity mindset. ALL students in the course are capable. Those who struggle do so because they have not had the opportunity to develop the academic skills needed to interpret faculty expectations accurately, to persevere through difficult instructions, or to ask for help. A zero for not turning in an assignment is not necessarily an indicator of laziness or apathy – usually the opposite: the student tried for a long time and feared the work they would turn in would reinforce their belief (and the faculty member’s) that they are not a good student. This lack of academic preparedness can be called an opportunity gap, and it is a gap we, as faculty members, can close.

Use of the framework ensures that all students have the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and/or skills without having to do the guesswork of what you are looking for. Instead of measuring a student’s ability to understand an assignment, you can know with more certainty that you are assessing their skills and knowledge related to course outcomes. Use of the framework at UNLV not only increased success on assignments, but also increased year-to-year retention and closed equity gaps.

Therefore, implementing the Transparency Framework on just two assignments in your class (more is great!) can:
  • Increase student confidence
  • Clarify your expectations
  • Build trust among you and the students in your classes – this is why this is part of The 4 Connections…actually, all of these are why; I wanted to highlight this one.
  • Reduce opportunity gap impact
  • Increase retention
  • Provide a mental framework that all students can continue to apply beyond your class
  • Ensure that you are accurately measuring competencies related to course outcomes

Learn about the Transparency Framework and its impact at UNLV:

Read about microbarriers to student success:

Watch students share their experiences in classes that are transparently (and collaboratively) designed:


Now that you have been introduced the Transparency Framework, complete the following actions. You may change the order if you prefer to see examples first or if you prefer to review the template first. Or, you can choose to skip the examples all together. The third action should be the last one you work on.
1)      Examine two examples of less transparent assignments that were revised to be more transparent.

a. Choose from: 

                                                             i.      Sociology
                                                            ii.      Science
                                                           iii.      Psychology
                                                           iv.      Communication

b. Consider the following questions: Think back to when you were a student. Which of the two versions of the assignments would you prefer and why? What changes did the faculty members make that help improve the assignments? Can you think of any other changes that would improve transparency? Note: You do not need to submit your responses to these questions.

2)      Review the Transparent Assignment Template and Transparent Assignment Checklist.

3)      Identify two assignments from one of your courses, and apply the Transparency Framework to redesign them. Use the template and checklist as guides, but feel free to make additional changes that help to improve clarity.

4)      Reflect on the experience of revising the assignment and the hopes you have for improved student success. Consider questions like: What are your overall thoughts about the framework and the impact it can have on student success? Why did you select the particular assignment for revision? What types of assignments would benefit most from the framework? Which courses? Do you have any concerns about adopting the framework for at least two assignments in all of your courses? How might you address those concerns? If you haven’t already answered these questions, what do you see as the greatest strengths and the potential shortcomings of the Transparency Framework?

Criteria for Success  

Now, evaluate your revised assignments using the following criteria. Event better, ask a colleague to do so.
Adherence to the template and checklist (or explanation when the template and checklist were purposefully adjusted)

Clarity of Purpose, Task, and Criteria for Success sections of the assignment (adopt a student perspective to evaluate for clarity)

As you prepare for the new academic year, consider how you can build trust with your students by clarifying your expectations. As you practice the other three connections (learning students’ names, checking-in regularly, and meeting one-on-one), get to know their strengths and struggles so that you can be flexible when needed based on what  will help them to be successful.

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