How Transparent Is Your Teaching?

by Daniel Baránek CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

by Daniel Baránek CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It seems that I am most likely to hear the word "transparency" used these days in the context of politics, science, engineering and business. The term implies openness, communication, and accountability. Being transparent means operating in such a way that it is easy for others to see what actions are performed. I don't hear it much in terms of education. 

Mary-Ann Winkelmes is now the Coordinator of Instructional Development and Research at the University of Nevada (UNLV) and an affiliate scholar in UNLV's department of history, as well as a Senior Fellow of the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U). But Mary-Ann started in higher education as a teacher of Italian Renaissance art and architecture. She developed an interest in trying to learn more about how her students were learning the content. Over the years, this has moved her away from art history and towards teaching and learning. 

If you teach, think about a lesson or exercise that is one of your favorites to use. How much of your teaching of that is now habit and how "transparent" is the assignment or task? She found that many traditional assignments come with little or no explanation and that students complete them because their professors tell them to. What she wants faculty to think about how is not only how they teach but also to ask their students to think about how they learn. 

In a 2015 interview, she defined transparency in this way: "Transparency means teaching students about more than just the course subject matter. It means telling students about your rationale for how and why you've chosen to shape their learning experiences. Most of the time, college faculty think and plan carefully about how the required work in their courses will lead students through a meaningful learning process. But students don't understand that because teachers stop short of discussing it with them. Transparency in teaching and learning requires that teachers and students talk about the process of how students are learning just as explicitly as they talk about the course content – or what students are learning."  

Winkelmes spent time at Harvard University's Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, the University of Chicago's Center for Teaching and Learning, and the University of Illinois where she created the Transparency Project in Teaching and Learning in 2010. Now she trains professors in “transparent” teaching.

This approach helps students understand why they have received an assignment, what they are expected to do, and how they will be evaluated. In The Unwritten Rules of College  How Professors Can Make Assignments Transparent, she describes how faculty involved in the project considered three questions when creating assignments: the task, the purpose, and the criteria.

This sounds so very basic to creating an assignment, but she finds it is frequent;y lacking in assignments. Perhaps those assignments are more translucent or even opaque.

Students need to be told exactly they are to do, including knowing the purpose of the assignment. Why are they being asked to do this and what is the instructor’s goal? What are the criteria that will be used to evaluate the work that the students submit?

She believes that knowing those three things can help motivate students and make their courses relevant.


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