How are your students doing this semester with their assignments? This is not a trick question, I promise! In my role as a consultant in a teaching center, I have often heard from instructors that they are frustrated when grading student assignments. They wish they could make sure students really understand what they are looking for.
The list of things you most likely had to adjust to and learn in the last two years is long and many of us are exhausted, understandably so. Just the thought of having to learn one more thing might seem overwhelming.
The goal of this article is therefore simple: I want to introduce you to one class activity that is rooted in the Transparency in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (TILT) project that you can incorporate at any point of the semester to ensure your students are as successful as possible when turning in their assignments. All you have to do is tweak the way you convey your expectations of your assignment through a class activity called TILT 2.0. As a bonus, your students will learn the invaluable skill of deciphering assignment instructions and will gain “assignment literacy.”
How do you currently convey your assignment expectations? The handout outlining a project, a group work activity, or a paper description that we give students constitutes just one artifact when we tell our students what they have to do for an assignment. When we teach face-to-face or synchronously, we are able to put the handout into context and explain verbally what exactly we want our students to do, what each step of the assignment means, give concrete examples, and answer questions during class time or in hallway conversations. Still, the written instructions for assignments oftentimes take center stage as they are posted in the Learning Management System and students refer back to them as they work on the assignment.
The case for transparency in assignments
Writing clear assignment instructions is not necessarily something that we learn when we first start teaching, nor is it something we might learn later in our career. One approach of communicating expectations in a written format comes from Dr. Mary-Ann Winkelmes’ TILT (Transparency in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education) project. The idea behind TILT is simple, yet highly effective: When we communicate all of our expectations with our students before they turn in their work, they will be more successful—easier said than done! After all, we are experts in our field and have likely completed similar assignments ourselves and might therefore be complicit when it comes to giving instructions that include hidden expectations that might not be apparent to students.
The TILT framework requires us to step back and examine our assignment instructions as they currently stand. Am I effectively communicating with my students:
- Why do they have to do the assignment (the purpose)?
- What are they supposed to do (the tasks)?
- How they are being evaluated (criteria for success)?
While I would, under normal circumstances, suggest you start with revising the written instructions for two assignments by “tilting” them, as for example suggested by Bose et al. in their article A Renewed Case for Student Success: Using Transparency in Assignment Design When Teaching Remotely, I recognize that many of us do not have the capacity to rewrite assignments at this point in the semester. So instead, I suggest using central elements of the TILT framework for an in-class activity called TILT 2.0 that will help you understand where your students’ assumptions about the assignment align with your expectations and where they differ. This activity can be facilitated in-person or in an online class that meets synchronously.
TILT 2.0: A class activity designed to make your expectations more transparent
The TILT framework challenges us to clearly communicate the purpose (more precisely, the knowledge gained and skills practiced), the tasks required to complete the assignment, as well as a clear outline of how the work will be graded and the criteria for success. The TILT 2.0 activity incorporates these parameters of a transparent assignment, while allowing students to work through identifying these elements on their own while also receiving feedback on their analysis.
For the activity itself, I suggest the following four steps paired with the worksheet, “Why am I doing this assignment,” which you can adjust to fit your teaching needs:
- Introduction of TILT 2.0 activity
- Individual work: students read the assignment instructions
- Small group work: students fill out the TILT 2.0 worksheet
- Debrief as a whole class
Start by presenting the assignment instructions as they are currently written and introduce the TILT 2.0 activity and the worksheet, “Why am I doing this assignment.” Make sure to stress the reason why you are doing this activity during class. You want your students to be successful with their assignment. You are doing this activity to provide guidance along the way while acknowledging that it is normal to have questions about assignment instructions.
After explaining the activity, ask your students to read the assignment instructions on their own and encourage them to highlight passages of the assignment that are unclear and to take notes on things they are unsure about.
Next, put students in small groups of three in-person or in breakout rooms when teaching online and ask them to fill out the shared worksheet. As part of the activity, students answer the worksheet prompts regarding the purpose of the assignment, what tasks they are expected to do, as well what they think the criteria for success is, meaning how do they think they will be evaluated and graded.
After the students have filled out their worksheet, it is crucial to debrief the activity with the whole class to check for alignment between what your students think they should be doing and your actual expectations. Begin the debrief portion by asking for volunteers to report back on each of the elements of the worksheet. You might find it helpful to write on the blackboard or share a fresh version of the worksheet on the screen and type up your students’ responses. At this point of the debrief, you are checking for gaps in understanding the assignment instructions, which then allows you to communicate with your students where they are on track and where they might miss important steps or elements that you will be looking for while grading. For example, while discussing the task section, you can let them know, “Yes, you are spot on with steps 1 as well as steps 3 through 5. I am glad to see that! However, you are missing this important second step. Let’s clarify what I expect you to do here.” Opening up communication about your assignment through this activity allows you to make your expectations transparent without having to re-write your instructions.
Incorporating the TILT 2.0 activity into your in-person or online synchronous classes will clarify what to do for assignments before deadlines and teach students how to decipher instructions. The activity and the debrief allow you to identify gaps in understanding which then allows you to provide more guidance to your students and coach them along the way. TILT 2.0 will not only reduce potential frustration on your end when it comes to grading but is designed to close achievement gaps among students by helping them understand parts of the hidden curriculum through open dialogue and more transparency.
A special thank you to my wonderful colleagues at the Office for Teaching & Learning at Wayne State University who have humored my excitement about TILT 2.0 for the better part of the last two years.
Anabel Stoeckle holds her PhD in sociology and works as a post-doc fellow in the Office for Teaching & Learning at Wayne State University where she works with faculty across campus. While working on her degree she discovered her love for teaching and TILT has become one of her favorite strategies to introduce instructors to during course design consultations.
Bose, D., Dalrymple, S., & Shadle, S. (2020). A Renewed Case for Student Success: Using Transparency in Assignment Design When Teaching Remotely. Faculty Focus.
Mulnix, A. B. (2020). From Inclusion to Equity: Pedagogies that Close Achievement Gaps. Faculty Focus.
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.