Module 1: Starting with a Clear Plan
Most assignments that you would have students complete for an in-person class can be completed and submitted for an online class. However, you may find a big difference in the way you need to communicate with your students about those assignments. Letting students know why they should do what you are asking them to do is a little thing that can make a huge difference. Completeness and clarity of instructions is critical, as students in an online course may feel less comfortable asking questions about an assignment. If you are only answering individual questions privately, students won’t benefit from your answer when another student asks the same question. Finally, providing students with meaningful criteria for what a successful assignment looks like can calm anxiety about idiosyncratic grading.
Dr. Mary-Ann Winklemas’ Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT) approach was originally designed to assist first-generation, low-income, and other traditionally underrepresented college students. For more information on the Transparency in Learning and Teaching approach, see the TILT FAQ on the TILT Higher Ed website.
While transparency in learning and teaching includes a range of strategies, we are focusing on the TILT method of assignments which puts the focus on how and why students are learning, and showing their learning in a particular way.
TILTing your assignment involves clearly explaining your teaching and learning processes in student-facing language (using you/your) and avoiding unnecessary jargon or academic-ese. This approach encourages faculty to explain the Purpose (why they are doing the assignment), the Task (what exactly they need to do), and the Criteria (how to succeed) of assignments in a way that students can understand and connect with.
The first and most important part is the Purpose. Many students, especially first-generation students, don’t consider that instructors design assignments and activities to help them learn particular things in a particular way. Thinking about it as the “learning purpose” can help you describe it in a way that is more personally meaningful to students. What will they gain from completing the assignment? Being told the purpose is basically “because I said so” doesn’t improve motivation and effort. Knowing that it is helping them get to something bigger and more relevant to their life outside of class does.
The second part is the Task, which needs to be explained clearly and with enough detail that students can follow the instructions from beginning to end without roadblocks. Converting an assignment to an online version makes this part critical. The instructions that you may have given your in-person students will likely not be enough for students to complete the assignment online. Don’t assume that students know how you want things submitted, that you want them to use a particular format, or that they instinctively know how to find other resources you may refer them to – particularly if webpages have moved or disappeared. It is very helpful to have someone else review your task instructions to make sure they are complete and accurate.
The final part is the Criteria. This is more than simply restating the task. Task instructions are normally in the form of “do this, then that,” which only gives students part of the picture. Just because they did all the steps doesn’t mean they did them well, or correctly. Criteria should give students that full picture of what a successful assignment submission looks like. This is often harder than it appears as you need to explain the criteria you’re using to grade, which may be implicit and vague even to you. Moving from an “I know a good paper when I read it” strategy to being able to explain to someone how you know that the paper is good can be a frustrating task but it’s worth the effort for your students. This is especially true on assignments where students regularly don’t give you the “good paper” that you are looking for.
Using a rubric with clear criteria descriptions using objective terms is place to start. Objective terms are really important because saying that an “A” paper will have a “well-written introduction” doesn’t tell students anything helpful if they don’t know what you mean by “well-written.” Your definition of “well-written” and theirs may be quite far apart so it doesn’t give them an accurate description of what you want. If you have examples of well-done assignments from previous semesters, sharing those examples can be quite helpful. Just make sure you get permission from the original student to share them with others.