The teacher explains what success looks like.

How many times have you given students an assignment and what you got back was nothing like what you thought you asked for? Not only is it a frustrating experience for you, but also for your students—what’s more, it is a missed opportunity for students to practice or apply what they are learning. Faculty have an important role in student success, and that is providing both high standards and high support to students. To this end, it is important to explain to students what performance levels are expected--what success looks like—and there are several ways faculty can communicate these expectations: when creating assignment prompts, when determining grading criteria, and when giving assignment examples.  

The framework in this section is informed by the TILT (Transparency in Learning and Teaching) Project, with focuses on revealing the “hidden” curriculum in higher education—that is, all the expectations that many students are not aware of when entering college. This approach can have an equity impact because it helps all students better understand expectations. Organizing your assignments in a way that clarifies what you are looking for and why both empowers students and creates conditions for learning. If you’d like to know more about TILT, see the link at the bottom of this page.*

  • Creating Transparent Assignment Prompts

    We often talk to students about what we want in an assignment but less often do we talk about why we are asking students to do something. In the TILT Framework, there are two elements to an assignment prompt—purpose and task. 

    Assignment Purpose: In an assignment, it is important to explain to students the skills they will practice as well as the knowledge they will gain. And, in addition to relating these elements to the course outcomes, it is important to relate the skills and knowledge to their real lives. For example, in a career course, a student might be asked to do an informational interview about a career they are considering. In a case like this, the purpose, skills, and knowledge could look something like this: 

    • Assignment: Informational Interview 
    • Purpose: The purpose of this assignment is to help you make an informed decision about the major/career you are considering 
    • Skills: The purpose of this assignment is to help you practice the following skills that are essential to your success in school and your professional life beyond school. In this assignment you will: 
      • Access and collect needed information from appropriate primary and secondary sources. 
      • Synthesize information to develop informed views
      • Compose a well-organized, clear, concise report to expand your knowledge on a subject on your major (or the major you are considering).
    • Knowledge: This assignment will also help you to become familiar with the following important content knowledge in this discipline: 
      • Issues facing professionals in a field 
      • Scholarly research formats for documenting in-text sources and creating reference pages (i.e., bibliographies).

    Assignment Task: In an assignment, you should outline specifically what you expect the student to do and how to do it. This means stepping through all the elements of the assignment (e.g., first do this, second do this). You are using your expert knowledge to help focus student effort in the most effective way and avoid unnecessary or unproductive time. To continue with the interview example above, this is what the task steps would look like:

    Task: to complete this assignment you should:  

    1. Select two professionals in your prospective academic discipline and/or career field that are considered experts in an area in which you are interested. 
    2. Secure an interview with the professionals for a date and time that is convenient for both of you. 
    3. Prepare 8-10 questions to ask professionals about their expertise in a particular academic discipline/career field. The questions must be based on a review of the field using 5 credible sources as defined by the librarian in our research module. Sources should be cited using APA formatting. 
    4. Conduct a 20-30 minute, face-to-face interview with each professional to gather knowledge that will help you to make an informed decision about the major/career you are considering. You will want to audio/video record the interview with the interviewee’s permission. 
    5. Prepare a typed transcript of the interviews. 
    6. Prepare and contrast the information provided by both professionals in an 8 page (1.5 spaced, 12 point Times New Roman font, 1-inch margins) report that documents the advantages and disadvantages of a career in the selected field. 
  • Determining Grading Criteria

    Once you have clearly outlined the assignment purpose and task, another critical element is providing the criteria for grading. The common occurrence of many students doing poorly on a course’s first assignment is a testament to students not clearly understanding the criteria on which their work will be evaluated.  

    Criteria can be a continuum, from a checklist of expectations to a fully-developed rubric, but regardless, students need to know what you are looking for in your assignment. It is also helpful to differentiate between the criteria for adequate versus exceptional work. Providing criteria can also be used in or out of class for peer review, providing the opportunity for students to catch issues before submission (as well as saving your time in grading). For more on developing rubrics, check out this overview with examples from Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center. 

  • Providing Exemplars

    Nearly as important as providing criteria is providing examples of what your assignment looks like in real-world practice. To avoid problems, such as a class full of copies of the exemplar, provide multiple examples across a range of performances—you could include examples of excellent work, and some only adequate ones as well. Most interesting are those exemplars that have both clear strengths and weaknesses. Encouraging students to analyze samples (using your criteria) provides some critical reflection on how they should guide their own efforts.

* For more information on the TILT (Transparency in Learning and Teaching) Project and examples of TILT assignments in different disciplines, visit the TILT Higher Ed Examples and Resources webpage or the NILOA Assignment Library