One Easy Way Faculty Can Improve
Student Success

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by Lisa Cook and Daniel Fusch, Academic Impressions

There has been a lot of talk recently about how faculty serve on the "front lines" of student success, and how changes to syllabus design or implementation of more active learning strategies can have a big impact on students' academic success and persistence.

Mary-Ann Winkelmes, coordinator of instructional development and research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, associate graduate faculty in the History Department, and senior fellow at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, has developed an approach she calls "teaching transparency." It isn't a pedagogical strategy, but rather a framework that faculty can use to help students better understand the rationale and relevance of specific learning activities and the steps they should follow to complete an activity successfully.

"It's a simple adjustment to teaching," Winkelmes notes, but one that has a demonstrated impact. In one study at seven minority-serving institutions, Winkelmes found that when faculty revised just two assignments to be clearer about their purpose, task and criteria, there was a statistically significant increase in student success for all students, but a particularly notable increase for underrepresented, first-generation, and low-income students.

We spoke recently with Winkelmes to learn more about the Transparency in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education project (TILT Higher Ed), her research findings, and how faculty can directly improve their students' performance.

The 3 Components of Teaching Transparency

When students don't understand how a particular assignment will help them learn course material, they often perceive the assignment as "busy work" -- and fail to complete it successfully. Teaching transparently — explaining why the activity is important and what skills and knowledge students will learn — changes that dynamic, because faculty address the assignment's relevance as soon as they introduce an activity.

Winkelmes's transparency framework instructs faculty to clarify three components of every learning activity:

  1. Purpose
  2. Task
  3. Criteria

Purpose involves explaining the content knowledge that students will gain from doing the work and the skills they are developing as they do it. Faculty should emphasize what critical thinking skills students are learning and practicing in work like participating in class activities and studying. Students should understand how the knowledge and skills benefit them now and beyond the context of the course, even after college.

The task part of the framework requires faculty to be very clear about the steps that need to be taken to complete a task. This reduces the amount of trial-and-error for students trying to start a task and allows them to spend the bulk of their time on the content and skills the instructor wants them to work on, Winkelmes explains.

However, instructions that seem clear to faculty may not always be so to students. Winkelmes recommends that faculty check in with students after clarifying the task:

  • Ask students what their first, second and next steps will be.
  • If what they say doesn't match up with what you intended, keep discussing the activity until everyone is on the same page.

In training workshops, Winkelmes has faculty practice this by pairing faculty from different disciplines and asking them to explain the steps of a task. The other faculty member explains those steps back; if the two explanations don't match, the faculty can workshop the task together to clarify the instructions before presenting the task to students.

Criteria helps students know whether they’re following an effective, efficient process as they work on the task. For example, criteria could include:

  • Collaborative analysis of an example of good work before the students start a task.
  • Multiple examples of excellent work with specific indications about what made it successful (so students don’t feel obligated to adhere to any one model).
  • A checklist of characteristics of successful work that students can use while working on the task

Faculty usually have an underlying rationale for course activities, Winkelmes notes; it's just a matter of sharing that and confirming that students understand it.
Winkelmes recommends employing transparent teaching at the very beginning of the term and then continuing to use the framework throughout the semester, to confirm students’ understanding of activities, assignments, class sessions, and how these cohere with the goals of the whole course.

"Faculty and students can discuss the process of how students are going to learn what they’re going to learn during the semester or term. This is relatively simple to implement, and it has significant benefits for all students, with even greater benefits for underserved students. This makes it a teaching approach that offers equitable opportunities for all students to succeed."
Mary-Ann Winkelmes, UNLV

The Results

Winkelmes found in her research that more transparency led to the following outcomes for students:

  • Increased motivation
  • Higher quality of student work
  • Fewer challenges to grades
  • Improved sense of academic confidence
  • Improved sense of belonging
  • Self-reported awareness of improvement of skills valued by employers, like working comfortably in groups and using written and oral communication

Among both the general student population and a cohort of underrepresented students, a higher sense of belonging and academic confidence correlated to improved GPA and retention rates, as previous research studies have indicated (Walton and Cohen 2011, Aronson et al 2001, Paunesku et al 2015).

UNLV is now considering how they can expand the approach outside of the classroom. Twelve of the university's administrative units are discussing how they can use the same transparency approach to better serve students.

Learn more about the approach here.

More Articles for Faculty:
How to Encourage Academic Grit and a Growth Mindset in Your Students
Civility in the Classroom: A Better Approach