A Renewed Case for Student Success: Using Transparency in Assignment Design When Teaching Remotely

Remote teacher explicitly explains transparent homework and lecture

In response to the worldwide spread of COVID-19, most erstwhile face-to-face and hybrid courses have now transitioned into remotely delivered ones. In these new educational spaces, designing for student success poses some specific challenges, especially because many faculty have had to plan and design to teach remotely at relatively short notice. While instructional designers and technologists are doing their best to help faculty transition to remote teaching during this challenging time, there appears to be relatively little discussion about designing courses for maximizing student success. During these times (perhaps especially now), we need to intentionally design for student success, leveraging tools and pedagogical strategies to support the success of all—especially struggling students.

This may be a good time to review some established pedagogical strategies that can enhance student success, in light of current circumstances. One such strategy is that of transparent assignment design. Initiated under the Transparency in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (TILT) project, led by Mary-Ann Winkelmes, transparent assignment design is an element of the transparent teaching framework geared to promote college students’ success. Transparent assignment design is the process of designing assignments so that the process of learning is more explicit for students. In other words, transparent assignments shed light on the assignment’s purpose, task, and criteria. How can transparent assignment design help students who have suddenly become remote learners be successful?

Transparently designed assignments can be especially useful when learners access assignments remotely. In our remote environments, some students may not be able to frequently or consistently communicate with the instructor due to inequitable internet connectivity or other socio-economic barriers. These barriers may have become more salient due to factors like job loss, lack of access to childcare, food insecurity, sickness, or emotional stress caused by social distancing. For these students, the clear and explicit verbiage of a transparently designed assignment’s purpose, task, and criteria may be particularly helpful.

Studies have found that making assignments more transparent helps students navigate their educational work more successfully, increases students’ sense of belonging, and improves retention rates (Winkelmes et al., 2016). While these findings applied to all students, there was a disproportionate positive effect on underrepresented minorities and first-generation college students. These students more often benefited from transparent assignments, or realized greater benefits, than did their peers.

How do you make assignments transparent? To create more transparent assignments, consider the following questions, adapted from resources developed by Mary-Ann Winkelmes:

  1. PURPOSE: Communicate to students what knowledge or skills they will gain from completing the assignment and how that knowledge or skill will be valuable to students.
  • Knowledge
    • What knowledge will students gain from completing the assignment?
    • How does that knowledge relate to other topics in your course or other courses?
    • How will the knowledge be relevant for students in their lives beyond your course or beyond college?
  • Skills
    • What skills will students practice while doing the assignment?
    • How do those skills relate to other contexts or examples where these skills were important, within your course or beyond?
    • How will these skills be valuable to students in their lives beyond your course or beyond college?
  1. TASK: Communicate the steps that students should take to complete the assignment.
  • Are all of the steps needed to complete the assignment laid out clearly? If any steps are implied, consider making them more explicit.
  • What are the common pitfalls that students encounter with this assignment? How can you help them avoid those pitfalls?
  • Are there opportunities for students to get feedback on parts of the assignment before the larger assignment is due? If not, provide such opportunities.
  1. CRITERIA: Well before the assignment is due, share with students the rubrics or checklists that you will use to evaluate their work.
  • Would a rubric or a checklist be most appropriate for evaluating your assignment?
  • If you use a rubric on this assignment, is it written in such a way as to be clear to a student?
  • Are there opportunities for students to evaluate their own work or other student work using the rubric or checklist that you have provided? If not, consider providing such opportunities.

Reviewing and redesigning current assignments with the framework of the transparent assignment design may seem daunting and pose additional challenges to faculty already facing a time- and resource-crunch. Given our context, adoption of this design method can be part of a gradual process of transition. Not all non-transparent assignments in the course need to be redesigned at once. Identify the assignments in your course that students are likely to need additional transparency and start with those. Additional resources and examples of transparent assignments can be found on the website for the Transparency in Learning and Teaching project.

Devshikha Bose is an instructional design consultant at the Center for Teaching and Learning, Boise State University.

Sarah Dalrymple is a clinical assistant professor at Boise State University. She teaches in the department of biological sciences and is a faculty developer in the Center for Teaching and Learning.

Susan Shadle is the executive director of the Center for Teaching and Learning and a distinguished professor of chemistry at Boise State University.


Winkelmes, M., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J., &, Weavil, K.H. (2016). A teaching intervention that increases underserved college students’ success. Peer Review, 8(1/2), 31-36.