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Transparent Teaching, Better Learning

I sat down in a café with a nervous smile on my face. "So, how did I do?" I asked the CRLT teaching consultant.

"Well, the students could tell that you really cared and prepared carefully. But they weren't sure exactly what you wanted of them."

"How is that possible?! I have three pages of rubrics at the end of my syllabus!"


I'm not going to lie, I was not always on board with transparent teaching - the idea that teaching should make expectations, goals, and underlying methods explicitly clear to the students. It's not that I wanted to willfully trick my students or set them up for failure. I felt that part of the learning process is exploration, figuring things out by trying different strategies, and taking ownership of your own learning. I felt transparent learning was undermining that. On my most cynical days, I felt that calls for transparency were an excuse to get me to tell my undergraduate students both what's on the exam and exactly what to answer to get an A.

Transparency does involve giving the students more explicit information, guidance, and help, including how to do well on their exams, but I now embrace it instead of finding it frustrating. This post will outline some of the reasons why I now think transparency is important, as well as some strategies I've used to incorporate it in my teaching of undergraduates at U-M.

Transparency is a great equalizer, in many senses. Research shows that transparency is especially valuable to first-generation students and other students who might not have had the benefit of AP classes, great schools, college campus visits, parents who know how to navigate the U.S. higher education system…the list goes on. Transparency not only makes it more likely students will succeed academically but also makes them feel less marginalized in the process. While I had some of the benefits mentioned above during my own undergraduate career, thinking back on my own experiences was helpful in appreciating the importance of transparency. For example, I thought back on the panic and shame that ensued because I didn't know what a colloquium respondent was early on in my graduate career - while being asked to be one. It just never crossed anyone's mind that a graduate student might never have sat through and observed a colloquium, and I was left feeling ignorant and adrift, even if only for a moment.

Transparency also helps students with less experience of a specific discipline to learn its norms. I teach Classics and archaeology, and my students have typically little or no previous experience in the discipline. Figuring out what is and is not "obvious" has taken me shamefully long and is a process that still continues. I have torn out my hair on endless occasions while wailing about students mixing up Mycenaeans and Minoans or, to my even greater consternation, happily citing Wikipedia as their only source. While I hope that venturing outside of Wikipedia is an interdisciplinary norm, it still is a norm, and it needs to be taught. Again, reflecting on my own ignorance has been helpful: I will never forget when my roommates, all physicists, introduced themselves by mentioning their specific research topics while I stared at them blankly and understood the true depths of my ignorance of physics.

On the instructor end, one great benefit of transparency is that it can reduce grade complaints and general grumbling. When students no longer feel like they are arbitrarily assigned grades through some mysterious black-box process, they are not only likely to actually do better, but also to be happier with their grades even if they do not. I remember rolling my eyes at rude emails demanding higher grades, but I do also remember my embarrassment when the best I could come up to justify a B+ on a paper was "It's just not…original enough. It doesn't have that something, that 'a-ha!' factor." Yeah, I actually said that. Ever since I introduced detailed rubrics with concrete examples and discussed the requirements for each assignment beforehand - well, the complaints haven't ended, but they have greatly reduced in number.

Through enabling inclusion and leveling the playing field at least a bit, transparency increases student persistence (continuing in their program), improves their learning and grades, and makes them more likely to acquire skills that are most highly valued by employers. I think these are fairly uncontroversial goals that need little defending, so I will now move on to how I have incorporated transparency in my teaching.

Talk about skills and skill acquisition explicitly.

To me, this has been the most successful tool I've adopted. As I mostly teach non-majors, often fulfilling their Humanities requirement, "What's in this for me?" is a very valid question for the students. The results of simply quickly discussing the specific transferable skills my students were acquiring before and after modules were drastic: the students did better on their assignments because they knew why they were doing them; they appreciated the work and learning they were doing more; and they afterwards reflected positively on their new skills and talked about applying them in the future.

Transferable skills: engaging with primary sources

An example of transferable skills learned from studying archaeological and literary sources.

  • Analytical skills: working with different kinds of ”raw” data, building hypotheses and drawing conclusions from it
  • Critical thinking: evaluating evidence and whether it supports the conclusions drawn
  • Problem-solving: identifying questions, identifying pertinent evidence, and answering the questions
  • Flexible and creative thinking: engaging with a new field, tolerating uncertainty

Be very open about goals.

Some of my most pained moments in the classroom have occurred when I was trying to lead an exercise that would teach the students X, but they kept talking about Y. I now offer detailed examples of the kinds of things I want the students to learn and demonstrate in each assignment. This can sometimes make even the dreaded pop quiz seem more palatable: I told my students I don't give quizzes to catch them out, but so that they can check their own learning, and (somewhat to my surprise) this didn't make the students less likely to study, but actually encouraged them to identify materials they needed to learn better.

Model excellence.

Give concrete, detailed examples of high-level work. Many of the courses I teach involve discussing text passages or images. Especially image analysis can be unfamiliar to many students, so I make sure to practice it in class and walk students through an "A+" answer, prompting them with questions. With the students' permission, I sometimes read out their excellent responses to their peers. Importantly, this also applies to "softer skills": I emphasize listening and paying attention as important contributions to my classroom, and noticed that something as simple as me referencing the students' earlier comments ("As Anna mentioned last week…") was quickly mirrored by my students who also started engaging more with each other's contributions.

Offer low-stakes assignments with feedback.

For a seminar I taught, I had the students write "process papers": they would write the papers piece by piece, and I would give them feedback at each point. The drafts were graded as handed in/not, so the students were motivated to ensure they did deliver but felt they could try things out and improve their work as needed.

Provide detailed rubrics.

I thought I was doing this, but it was clear my students thought otherwise. I supplemented my rubrics with concrete examples of A, B, C, and D-level work, organized by skill or assignment. This not only made the process more transparent to the students, but ultimately made my grading easier. While in the past I had wrung my hands about whether a student had shown adequate participation, I could now go through my list of showing up, making one comment almost every week (and/or doing well on short writing assignments in class), listening attentively, etc., and assign a grade with more confidence.

An Example of a Grading Rubric for a Collaboration with a Community Partner
A B C D
Is familiar with the mission of [the community partner]; contributes to preparations in a major way by doing research, sharing notes with team members, and planning; shows up to all planning meetings; shows up to the program visit; engages with the children at their level; hands in a thoughtful reflection; is flexible about the program’s schedule and needs Is familiar with the mission of [the community partner]; contributes to preparations in a moderate to small way by doing research, sharing notes with team members, and planning; shows up to all planning meetings; shows up to the program visit; engages with the children but fumbles some; hands in a reflection; is flexible about the program’s schedule and needs Has vague idea about the mission of [the community partner]; contributes to preparations in a small way by doing research, sharing notes with team members, and planning but relies mostly on others; shows up to some planning meetings; shows up to the program visit; doesn’t engage with the children well; doesn’t hand in reflection or fills it in haphazardly; is rigid about scheduling or spending time on the project Doesn’t care to learn about [the community partner]; skips preparation or rides on others’ coattails; skips some planning meetings or the program visit; has a visibly poor attitude towards the children; doesn’t hand in reflection or fills it in haphazardly; is rigid about scheduling or spending time on the project

Involve the students in class planning.

This is, of course, more feasible in small classes than large lectures. Incorporating some form of this, whether it's coming up with a learning contract, discussing each student's effective learning strategies, or suggesting a topic for the last week of classes, encourages the students to take ownership of their learning and, based on my experience, also leads to a greater self-awareness of what, how, and why the students were learning.

Get meta!

This has been a difficult balance for me to navigate: how to talk about learning in a way that is helpful and clear. Almost by definition, many deeply internalized thought processes are difficult to articulate for students and teacher alike. (For example, Amy B. Mulnix's write-up about how she modeled her thought processes in class.) One thing I have done is show graphs that demonstrate the effectiveness of certain learning strategies and behaviors; for example, a graph showing the correlation of visits to office hours and final grades was modestly successful in encouraging more students to show up to office hours to ask questions and clarify what they had learned. I have also tried to walk students through my thought processes, for example when reading images (see above) - discussing strategies that I use to figure out the date of an object or how I use context and "bootstrap" my way from facts that I know to facts that I do not remember in an exam panic.

Be a little bit human.

This is sometimes tricky for me, as my humanity includes certain features that are maladaptive to teaching: nervous giggling, continuously questioning myself, and rambling about unicorns at too much length. But when done in moderation, students respond well to you not only being transparent about teaching, but also being transparent about yourself. A few short anecdotes about things I struggled with academically during my undergrad and about how I incorporate archaeology into my spring break have helped foster an atmosphere of sharing and active participation.

Resources on transparent teaching (some already linked to above):

The Transparency in Learning and Teaching Project at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has concise summaries on transparency as well as links to studies and other resources.

Mary-Ann Winkelmes et al., "A Teaching Intervention that Increases Underserved College Students' Success." A study describing many of the benefits mentioned in this blog post, with detailed data and further reading.

Transparent teaching is part of inclusive teaching. See U-M's Center for Research on Learning and Teaching's website for useful resources.


The views expressed in this post are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Rackham Graduate School or the University of Michigan.