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Forget the What: It’s the How and Why That Really Matter

UNLV leads the country with program that proves even small changes to assignments can yield big results in classroom success — especially among first-generation students.

Campus News  |  Jan 21, 2016  |  By Brian Sodoma
Mary-Ann Winkelmes

Mary-Ann Winkelmes, coordinator for instructional development and research, is the principal investigator for the national Transparency in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education program. (Aaron Mayes/UNLV Photo Services)

When Alexander Cronk, a UNLV sophomore, took a Renaissance art history class last year, he immediately noticed something very different. The rationale for every lesson was extremely detailed and explained very clearly by the instructor. He knew how he would be evaluated on assignments and there was even a reason given for why a certain teaching strategy was being used. He knew what he would gain from doing each assignment: what knowledge he’d learn and what skills he would practice by doing the work. It was a first.

“I have never had a class that was so organized and the professor was so committed to her organization and the syllabus,” Cronk added.

A self-described “B-student,” Cronk earned an A in the class. That added assignment clarity and emphasis on learning the how and why of a lesson made all the difference.

Teaching transparently

Cronk’s professor was Mary-Ann Winkelmes, who is also UNLV’s coordinator for instructional development and research. In addition, she is the principal investigator for the Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT) in Higher Education program, an award-winning national project now housed at UNLV.

Winkelmes brought the Transparency in Teaching project to UNLV in 2013 after starting it at the University of Chicago in 2010 and expanding it at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It’s now applied to more than 300 courses at 27 institutions. Its goal is to explore how small instructional changes could improve student success in a class and ultimately lead to jumps in student retention and graduation rates.

Learning to teach takes considerable time and practice, Winkelmes explains. Between research responsibilities and staying on top of changes in their area of expertise, finding extra time to improve teaching methods can be nearly impossible for many a professor; thus the imperative to focus on small changes.

A growing dialogue among professors, and with input from students, eventually revealed a greater need for students to understand why a lesson is being taught, how they are being graded, and which learning methods are best suited for a particular concept.

Today, more than 50 UNLV instructors are using transparency methods in onsite, online, and hybrid classes, most of them in first-year college courses.

“We know that, nationally, the first year is when the most students will drop out of college,” Winkelmes emphasized.

Instructors start by redesigning a small piece of their course (sometimes as little as a couple of take-home assignments), then surveying students at the end of the semester. But unlike traditional instructor evaluations, these surveys prompt students to reflect on their learning experiences in the course, and they’re asked about the moments they felt their particular learning style was well served.

The results are then compiled with more than 12,000 other responses from courses across the country, providing an invaluable warehouse of information about teaching strategies that are working for students and faculty. UNLV’s Greenspun College of Urban Affairs is helping to build a database in collaboration with Applied Analysis, a private research company. It will enable this data to be shared with education researchers across the country and around the world.

Winkelmes says it’s important for students to think about how they learn and faculty to think about why they teach a concept a certain way.

“To me, transparency is advocating for more social justice in higher education,” she explained. “Our data shows that transparent teaching is helpful for all students, and the effects are especially beneficial for first generation and minority populations — students whose college graduation rates are now about half that of their white and Asian peers nationally.”

That’s a major selling point for the program at a university that ranks as the second most diverse campus in the nation, according to US News & World report. More than half of all undergraduate students at UNLV report being part of a racial or ethnic minority and in 2015, UNLV became the first four-year institution in Nevada to reach Hispanic enrollment of 25 percent, meeting the U.S Department of Education’s definition of a Hispanic Serving Institution. The university also meets Minority Serving Institution requirements for Asian American, Native American, and Pacific-Islander populations.

In a recent study, UNLV partnered with Tia Brown McNair and Ashley Finley of the Association of American Colleges & Universities to analyze the learning gains of more than 1,100 students and 35 faculty spanning 70 different courses at seven Minority-Serving Institutions across the country. The instructors incorporated just two transparently designed assignments in an academic term, but saw large benefits for underrepresented, first-generation and low-income students, including:

  • increased academic confidence
  • improved sense of belonging
  • self-perceived mastery of the skills that a 2015 Hart Research Associates report says employers value most highly

Researchers have already tied increases in confidence and a sense of belonging to increased student persistence and retention rates in reported in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Winkelmes also noted.

The end of busy work

Katharine Johnson, UNLV’s Academic Success Center coordinator, teaches a first-year seminar targeted at students who are undecided about a major. It encourages them to explore career fields while also learning study skills.

“At 18, some still haven’t bought into college, which is a pretty normal way to feel. They’re here, but they’re still not sure why or where they’ll go,” she said. “Our job is to get them into an academic college where they can successfully complete their education in a timely manner and find what they love to do.”

With the help of the transparency program for the past two years, Johnson has been redesigning assignments and has placed a greater emphasis on the larger goal of the class.

“It really gives the students a sense for why we are asking them to do something. Nothing feels like busy work anymore,” she said. “I don’t get as much pushback, and they really buy into the value of doing things.”

For example, Johnson tweaked an assignment to write a reflection paper after reading a book; she had always used it to assess critical thinking skills. She realized she needed to incorporate a clearer message before the assignment about what critical thinking skills are and why they are important.

“This has helped me to better understand why I’m asking them to do something,” she added.

With clearer, more explicit instructions, she also fields fewer questions. “One of my complaints as an instructor is that flood of emails where people are saying they don’t understand it — that has almost completely gone away,” Johnson said.

Professor David Copeland began implementing transparency methods last year in his Psychology 101 class — a course that UNLV administrators have found acts as a bellwether for eventual graduation success. Like Johnson, Copeland also stepped back to look at the bigger, broader picture of the class. Toward the end of the course, he had students write a paper on a view or belief that changed over the semester.

“I realized they could not accurately remember how they used to think about the topic when they started the class,” he said.

Now, Copeland begins the semester with students reflecting on about 10 different topics so they have a reference point for the later assignment.

“In any course, you can get bogged down in students needing to learn a concept,” he added. “This motivates me to ask: What do I want them to learn or know that will help them three years from now?’ It’s more of a focus on skill building now, and we’re teaching them more about how to learn and think.”

This year, the effort to spread transparent teaching and learning practices at UNLV has spread beyond classroom faculty to include staff members in the UNLV Libraries, Academic Success Center, Registrar’s Office, First Year Seminar program, Undergraduate Advising Centers and Division of Undergraduate Education. They, too, are beginning to encourage new students to identify the purposes, tasks, and criteria for their academic work.

Opening the Gate to Top Tier

Bringing the “how” and “why” into the education conversation through transparently designed lessons also mitigates the gatekeeper role so many professors take on when they assign a failing grade to students not yet adept at learning in a college setting. Too often, a failure early in the academic career leads to a student dropping out. Transparent teaching and learning can help those students learn how to succeed, so a greater variety of thinkers will proceed with their studies. Eventually, Winkelmes said, this will influence the top levels of research.

“When you look at research breakthroughs, they tend to come from a person who was thinking outside the traditional framework. It’s usually outlier thinkers,” Winkelmes said. “Sometimes, education weeds out outlier thinkers — and that needs to stop. A lack of prior exposure [to university-level expectations] is not a reason to exclude.”

Teaching transparently also supports UNLV’s Top Tier efforts by directly impacting four of the eight metrics on the university’s strategic goals progress card, Winkelmes noted. They are: retention rates, student satisfaction, student diversity, and faculty and staff job satisfaction.

“This is a more equitable way to teach, and it gives more students a fair shot at succeeding,” she added.

Learn more about the project on the Transparency in Teaching and Learning website.