Mary-Ann Winkelmes looked out at her students one evening 15 years ago. Even now, she can remember their day jobs: banker, security guard, plumber, lounge singer, priest.
She had dedicated her life to the art and architecture of the Italian Renaissance. But why, she wondered, did students in Harvard University’s extension program need to learn about it?
Yes, there is inherent value in studying beauty, mosaics, and Michelangelo. But her students weren’t going to become art historians. After the course was over, what would they take with them?
Ms. Winkelmes was inclined to think about pedagogy; at the time she was associate director of Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. What she wanted her students to carry forward, she realized, was more fundamental than frescoes: It was how to learn.
But how can a professor cultivate that? The question gnawed at her as she trained faculty members in teaching at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her quest has animated more than a decade of studying how students learn and what instructors can do to help make it happen.
While at Illinois, she led a grass-roots
of 25,000 students at 27 institutions in seven countries. Results showed that a simple approach can yield big results. Making the process of teaching and learning explicit to students — especially those who don’t know what to expect — helped them see what Ms. Winkelmes calls "the secret, unwritten rules of how to succeed in college."
As an increasingly broad and diverse cross section of students enters higher education, knowing those rules matters more than ever. Without them, students stumble. They might miss the point of a paper, drift during discussions, or feel overwhelmed or aimless. But all students can thrive, Ms. Winkelmes says, if the tacit curriculum is made plain.
When teaching is what she calls "transparent," students better understand the rationale for assignments and how they’re evaluated. New research on several campuses shows that students taught that way are more confident academically and feel as if they belong in college, which helps predict whether they succeed and remain enrolled.
The data suggest one practice in particular — giving assignments — that, done transparently, has a significant effect on students. Here at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, where Ms. Winkelmes is now principal investigator of the project Transparency in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education
she has distilled that finding into a straightforward protocol.
Professors who have signed on to the project consider three questions when creating assignments: what, exactly, they’re asking students to do (the "task"); why students have to do it (the "purpose"); and how the work will be evaluated (the "criteria"). Then the instructors explain those things to their students. That’s it.
Beyond faculty members in several departments at UNLV, people in online education, the library, even recreation services here are focusing on those three things. In the classroom, knowing the task, purpose, and criteria can help motivate students and make their courses relevant. In other areas, the information can help them navigate an intimidating system. To Ms. Winkelmes, the protocol helps students meet higher expectations of rigor, which, in turn, can ensure equity in educational quality.
Its three components are deliberately modest. Spelling them out for students does not mean wholesale changes, like flipping courses. It requires no fancy technology. Instead, the protocol is designed to give faculty members a ready technique to improve learning.
As minor and perhaps self-evident as the underlying questions may seem, it’s surprising how often they go unexamined.
As creatures of academe, professors often take for granted the logic and the rhythm of their courses. Some have forgotten how much they know and care about the material relative to their students, who may simply be meeting requirements.
An assignment can become an old standard, reliable but creaky. Consider this one, from an introductory psychology course at Harvard about 15 years ago. A ghost is in a mansion with the characters from Scooby Doo. Each has suffered an injury to a different part of the brain, like the amygdala or basal ganglia. "The plan is simple," the assignment reads. "Someone needs to confront the ghost without getting too scared, someone needs to try to figure out what the ghost is saying, and someone needs to figure out what the next plan of action should be." The students must decide which character carries out which task and explain why.
During a workshop at UNLV last semester, Ms. Winkelmes asked a group of faculty members to identify the purpose of the assignment.
They drew on their understanding of college’s hidden rules, guessing accurately that the assignment had been designed to gauge students’ knowledge of parts of the brain. "Obviously," said Carryn Bellomo, an associate professor of mathematics, "you’d need to understand brain terminology."
"And how would you know if you were doing the project well?" Ms. Winkelmes asked. What are the criteria for success?
The professors looked at the assignment. The most explicit instruction was the most superficial: to use 12-point type, double-spaced, with one-inch margins.
Ms. Winkelmes returned to the math professor’s "obviously" comment. "To us as teachers, as people with Ph.D.s who’ve been doing this for years, it was easy," she said, "though even we had to dig a little bit."
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Dan Berrett, Teaching Newsletter: The Chronicle of Higher Education.