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Transparent Teaching in Three Simple Steps

Mon Jun 12, 2023 at 07:30 AM

Have you experienced students missing the prompt for an essay, trailing off during a presentation, or viewing assignments as a series of unconnected ideas? One approach that can make a big difference to students’ success is to make the process of teaching explicit through three simple words: task, purpose, criteria. Teaching students “how to learn” is a life-long skill worth developing. A more transparent approach to teaching helps ensure equity in educational quality, motivates students, and makes their courses relevant.

Include Task, Purpose, and Criteria

  1. Take an existing assignment.
  2. Create sub-headings: task, purpose, criteria; now you’re ready to fill in each section.
  3. Task: what, exactly, instructors are asking students to do.
  4. Purpose: why students have to do it.
  5. Criteria: how the work will be evaluated.

Students benefit from explicit assignment guidelines, especially when we have a specific goal in mind. A task may need to be broken down into a few components to lead students in the intended direction. This works for more open-ended, student-directed activity as well, as a task explaining acts of exploration, inquiry, and curiosity can ensure students of the freedom they can take.

Students complete many assignments simply because they’re listed in the syllabus, and the assignments are given with little or no explanation at all. Linking to the course learning outcomes can show students how the work connects to the course’s larger purpose. A clear purpose can include making an informed decision about a major or a career, or monitoring how their views change, etc.  

Criteria refers to meaningful and transparent assessment. Going beyond spacing, type size, or vague elements such as “follow directions,” transparent criteria examples include “identifying real data sets that are realistic and consistent with expectations,” or “demonstrating knowledge of how the auto industry is responding to the changing behavior of buyers.”


After implementing this technique, I’ve noticed a positive change in the quality of assignments for more students. Transparent teaching allows more students to exceed expectations. OU students have shared stories throughout the semester and teaching evaluations about how a particular project helped them in another class, student organization, or job interview. These stories may be a result of how explicit teaching helps students better identify connection points, value, and increases their engagement and motivation with the material. 

Why This Matters

While this technique may seem evident to instructors, it is surprising how often these are not identifiable by students. Additionally, changing demographics make transparent teaching more critical. Identifying purpose and clarity helps all students understand and explain the value of their academics to themselves, their family, and friends. Additionally, students focus more on the intended academic outcomes vs. guessing what is required of them. Understanding the “rules of the game” can be especially tricky for underrepresented students, and this type of teaching technique provides navigational capital (e.g., reading a syllabus, assignments, talking to professors, etc.). 

A simple test for instructors is to have an outside individual read an existing assignment, and determine what the task requires, why it is relevant, and how they will be graded. If these three points are not clear, imagine how easy it is for students to miss the prompt as well.

Prompt Students to Do This For Themselves

Talk with students explicitly about how you are making expectations and goals clearer through these practices, and encourage them to do the same for themselves in other courses. When they look at something their professor assigned, can they identify the task, purpose, and criteria? If so, they will feel more confident and focused in their work. By identifying the purpose for themselves, they may even be more motivated. If they aren’t confident in how they have defined task, purpose, and criteria, they can ask their professor in a way that shows them they have made an earnest attempt. Instead of asking “What exactly am I supposed to do?” they ask a more pointed question, like “These are the criteria I identified. Is there anything else I should be sure to include?”

References and Resources 

Berrett, D. (2015, September 21). The Unwritten Rules of College.
Winkelmes, M. A. (2014). Transparency In Learning And Teaching In Higher Education. TILT Higher Ed.

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About the Author

Molly Gagnon is a Special Instructor for the Management and Marketing Department at Oakland University. Molly teaches marketing and contemporary world business. In an attempt to turn her thumb green, Molly is trying gardening this summer.

Edited and designed by Christina Moore, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oakland University. Others may share and adapt under Creative Commons License CC BY-NC

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