Teaching for Equity: Introduction to Transparent Assessment

Thursday, October 29, 2020

A Message from Wendi Dew, Assistant Vice President, Teaching and Learning and Isis Artze-Vega, Vice President, Academic Affairs 

Teaching for Equity: Introduction to Transparent Assessments 

Last month, we launched this new series of communications by describing some of the fall term collegewide efforts associated with equity-minded teaching and learning. Since then, we have heard about many regional and discipline-based equity efforts, and we look forward to featuring your insights in future editions. This communication features transparent assessment design, a practical equity-minded teaching practice with a strong evidence base that benefits both students and faculty. We hope it helps with putting the finishing touches on upcoming fall assessments, and that you’ll consider revisiting the transparency resources when refining your spring assessments. In spring, we will invite you to a new course in the Equity-minded Practice Series, Equity-minded Assessment: Transparent Assessment, and before winter break you can explore transparency within the Equity-minded Assessment: Introduction to “A New Decade” Reading Circle.

What does transparent assessment entail?

Essentially, transparent assessment design entails making the implicit explicit in your assessment guidelines. Transparency has been recently popularized by the Transparency in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education project (TILT), an award-winning national educational development and research project. Lead by Mary-Ann Winkelmes, executive director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Brandeis University, a core feature of the TILT project is the Transparent Assignment Template, a framework for developing, explaining, and discussing in- and out-of-class activities and assignments in any course modality. The template consists of three parts: purpose, task, and criteria, as described in the table below.

This summer, during a just-in-time course on transparent assessment design, our faculty affirmed that transparency is even more critical in an online learning environment. “In many regards you must/should be hyper transparent in an online course, more so than the face-to-face mode requires,” shared Meg Curtiss, professor, graphic design, and West Campus program chair of graphic and interactive design. In a face-to-face class, “you can qualify things more easily,” whereas online, “students aren’t able to ask questions as readily — or don’t — therefore, clarity/transparency is paramount to success and to outcomes being reached,” she added.

The principles of transparency also apply to tests and exams. As the University of Waterloo Centre for Teaching Excellence advises, informing students of the purpose and parameters of an exam is an important part of test preparation. “Being aware of why we are testing students and what exactly we want to test can help make students’ and instructors’ experience of exams more useful.” They provide helpful suggestions for communicating your goals for any test, helping students study effectively, and anticipating student questions about the test content, form, and how you will mark it (award/deduct points, etc.).

If transparency sounds like a reduction in rigor, consider instead its effect on motivation. Of course, we want our courses to be challenging and level-appropriate, and high expectations are central to student motivation (Ambrose et al., 2010). However, we don’t want the challenge of a project or test to be in deciphering the instructions, as this results in flawed measurement. Instead, an assignment or test’s level of rigor should represent the challenging cognitive tasks you are assessing.

How do we know transparency works? 

In courses where students perceived more transparently designed assignments, they reported gains in three areas that are important predictors of success: academic confidence, sense of belonging, and mastery of the skills that employers value most when hiring. For first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students, those benefits were larger. First-generation students and multi-racial students experienced medium-to-large effect size differences in all three domains (academic confidence, belongingness, and mastery of the skills employers value) (Winkelmes et al., 2016).

One reason for these successes is that, as experts in our fields, certain tasks have become second nature to us, and we fail to notice their complexity. We sometimes forget that what seems perfectly clear to us may be confusing for our students. Deciphering what professors want and why they want it can be frustrating for them, and can have a cascading impact on students’ self-efficacy and motivation. Thus, clearly communicating our expectations helps them learn and creates a more equitable learning environment.

Faculty also benefit from transparent assessment design. It can make grading easier, describes Kasey Christopher, Ph.D., teaching assistant professor, genetics, development, and science education, Department of Biological Sciences, Duquesne University, as more students submit work well-aligned with faculty expectations. She notes additional indirect gains: “First, by removing the confusion about basic requirements, I find that students worry less about what their assignment should look like, focusing more energy on content … Additionally, putting the purpose into writing forces me to think carefully about designing assignments that truly help students meet learning objectives. Creating specific criteria for success helps me anticipate common problems, thinking preemptively about what constitutes an [effective] response.”

How/where can I learn more?

The TILT project website includes templates and sample assignments from varied disciplines. To learn more about the project and transparency, please visit the following web resources, including a resource guide developed this summer by the Teaching and Learning team and faculty facilitators:

Again, please stay tuned for details on a new course in the Equity-minded Practice Series, Equity-minded Assessment: Transparent Assessment, to be offered in the spring. This term, you can explore transparency within equity-minded assessment by engaging in the Equity-minded Assessment: Introduction to “A New Decade” Reading Circle, or explore other essential equity-minded practices in the INDV3121 Implicit Bias/Microaggressions course (there are only seven seats available in the course that starts on Monday, November 9, 2020.). Please watch the Valencia EDGE and the Faculty Insight for updates.


Ambrose, S. A., Lovett, M., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Christopher, K. (2018, April 16). “What Are We Doing and Why? Transparent Assignment Design Benefits Students and Faculty Alike.” The Flourishing Academic.

Winkelmes, M. (2015). Recent Findings: Transparency in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education

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, (1-2), 31.


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