Black boxes are useful in a model system or the research we do as we work to understand the world. In those cases, the ‘unknowns’ are exciting and they represent what we are working to ‘know’. However, when it comes to what is expected of you as a learner in your classes, there should NOT be black boxes. Transparency is paramount for equitable, inclusive learning.
This post is intended to share materials and ideas for students to recognize transparency or lack of it, so that they can ask the right questions of their instructors and have those expectations clarified so that they have the best chance to be successful. The framework of transparency is not intended to be unidirectional – simply clarifying the information shared from faculty to student- but also a conversation where clarity and communication are maintained through a regular feedback cycle about how well it is working and what might be made even more clear.
What is transparency in educational settings and why does it matter?
The basic concept is simple. Transparency in the classroom means that the purpose, the task, and the criteria (to be successful) must be clear to the learners.
Probably the most comprehensive set of materials on transparency in higher education comes from the Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT) Higher Ed. body of work inspired and directed by Dr. Mary-Ann Winkelmes. Many of the resources discussed or linked here are from that work in some way or another.
Most of the research and resources regarding transparency are aimed at teachers who are looking for examples and templates to increase transparency in their course materials. The number of these types of resources is growing, which means change is happening! As with most of the evidence-supported practices that make learning inclusive and effective, there is still work to do. In the meantime, learners need some tools.
The rules and criteria that result in ‘success’ in a particular course (or assignment) are determined by the instructor. It follows that, if those expectations and criteria are inadvertently withheld from the students (unless students can intuit specific expectations and can do it correctly – and some can) a barrier to learning and to meeting those expectations is established.
You may be wondering how information that allows students to be successful can be ‘inadvertently’ withheld. Easily. As humans, without being intentional and reflective about the varied realities of others, we often operate based on our own past experiences, our own understandings of the world, and our own ‘entry points’ into ideas and tasks. Ultimately, we make assumptions. In an educational setting where we are working to develop a diverse group of learners and professionals, our assumptions can create biases and a very unequal playing field for students with different past experiences and understandings. Most often if we experience lack of transparency as learners, instructors are sharing what they experienced and haven’t taken or had the time to consider the assumptions they are making when they share expectations, use language, and/or expect certain outcomes on assignments.
How to recognize Transparency
Read your Syllabus and your assignments. Your syllabus is effectively your learning contract with the course, and the course’s learning contract with you. It takes time to develop these, even more time to make them transparent and welcoming. Each assignment should also be transparent so that students have clear understanding of what is expected of them to do well. Associated with transparency in assignments is the related transparency in assessment. Rubrics are the best ‘tools’ to help a student know what is required and valued in any assignment and how they will be graded. These can also lack detail and transparency. At their best, they are sufficiently detailed and concise so that a student can use the criteria to pre-check their work. At worst, rubrics are a great starting point for a more detailed discussion about expectations. Be sure you do the work of reading what has been shared so that you can ask necessary, specific and respectful questions that will allow you to meet instructor expectations.
- the purpose (why are we doing this, learning outcomes objectives)
- the task (what are we doing specifically)
- the criteria – (what specifics are required to be successful)
How to ask for transparency, if it is lacking
Simply asking an instructor to provide a more transparent syllabus or assignment could require some clarification on your part as to what it is you mean. So what can a student do to recognize when transparency is missing and ask valuable clarifying questions?
Again, read your syllabus and your assignments. Look for purpose, tasks, and criteria. Read for unfamiliar terms or phrases. Remember, the language and expectations may not be familiar to you for a host of reasons, for which you are not to blame! After you have paid careful attention to the materials provided, go to office hours, ask in class when opportunities arise, or reach out after class to the instructor, TAs, or other members of the teaching staff.
- Ask how the assignment connects specifically to the content and learning outcomes objectives
- Ask for examples of good work
- Ask for rubrics with detailed criteria
- Ask for definition of any terms used in the syllabus or on an assignment with which you are unfamiliar
In the case where you are having difficulty getting the answers you feel you need, you can use the metacognitive cycle to help you fill in what you can until you get more answers.
- Find a diverse group of peers to work with. Discuss and write what you collectively believe are the purpose, the task and the criteria. More ‘heads/persectives’ will represent different experiences and possibly include someone who can better intuit or understand (via their experiences) what is really expected. Reflect on what you are being expected to learn in the context of what has been happening in class. Here is a link to a previous Edublog with support for turning problem sets into study sessions using ‘metacognition’ (thinking about your learning process) that could help.
The bottom line is: we may be quite a distance from perfect transparency in our higher education classrooms, and slowly things are changing. All learners deserve an equitable opportunity to be successful, regardless of diversity of experience and cultural expectations. We are richer for our diversity. Lack of transparency is typically an oversight, and therefore calling respectful attention to it will help instructors recognize oversights and will benefit individual learners now and in the future.