Revealing the Secret Handshakes: The Rules of Clear Assignment Design

Steven Volk, September 27, 2015

I’ve often thought that the more we can reveal to our students about why we design our classes as we do, or the more we can suggest the principles that underpin our assignments,  the more they would learn and the better they would do. I probably started thinking this way as a simple reaction against the “You need to do it this way because that’s what I’m asking for” approach, the teacher’s equivalent of the parental “Because!” response to a child’s “Why do I have to?” question. I continue to disclose the architecture of my course design because it offers an opportunity to discuss the way I apply learning theory to instructional design, bringing students in as collaborators in the complex process of teaching and learning. At the start of the semester, I’ll spend some time talking about constructivist theories of learning to explain why I rely more on discussion than lecture. I’m not always sure they fully understand what I’m talking about, and that is somewhat beside the point anyway since I don’t teach learning theory even though it informs my teaching (and my students’ learning). But clarifying the architecture that supports my course design is one way I have of inviting students into the club, as it were. By showing them academia’s “secret handshakes,” I felt I could make them feel both more in control of their learning and somewhat more self-confident about what they could achieve in my class.


Now I’ve discovered that there is some strong research to support my assumptions. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran an article about the work of Mary-Ann Winkelmes and her “Transparency Project.” Winkelmes, who trained as an art historian specializing in Renaissance art and architecture, served as the associate director of Harvard’s superb Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. She moved on to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she organized the Illinois Initiative on Transparency in Learning and Teaching, an assessment project involving 25,000 students at 27 institutions in seven countries. The project aimed at disclosing more precisely what instructors could do to improve student learning.

Winkelmes’ results confirm what many of us have been doing for some time. If we make the process of teaching and learning explicit to students — especially those who don’t know what to expect from their college experience — we can have a significant impact on their learning. By the relatively simple act of letting students in on what Winkelmes calls “the secret, unwritten rules of how to succeed in college” (which are, essentially, my “secret handshakes”), we can actually impact their learning positively.

The Illinois project has two main goals: to promote students’ conscious understanding of how they learn, and to enable faculty to benefit from data about students’ learning by coordinating efforts across disciplines, institutions, and countries. The Transparency Initiative asks students about their perceptions of the current and future learning benefits they are gaining, complementing existing assessments of content mastery and teaching performance. It was designed to determine whether the information that many of us reported anecdotally – that students did better when they understood how and why instructors had structured their learning experiences in particular ways – would stand up in a rigorous research study.


We already know a fair amount about the impact of putting students more in control of their own learning. Metacognition research has demonstrated fairly consistently that students learn more and retain more of what they have learned when they have some control over how they are learning and are aware of the learning process itself. Further, we know that training students to understand how to take control over their learning will increase their academic success. (For those who want to pursue this further, you’ll find a short bibliography at the end of the article.) I should note that the surveys developed by Winkelmes avoided the typical limitations of student self-reports of learning (students tend to self-report greater mastery than actual performance reveals) by focusing on students’ reports of how much, or if, their learning experience affected their mastery of content and critical thinking skills. (Full details on the assessment study are here. Demographically, the responses to the survey closely matched the overall undergraduate population in the United States.)

Making the Unwritten Rules Visible in Assignment Design

Winkelmes is currently at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she is the principal investigator of the project Transparency in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. There, she is trying to fit the findings of her Illinois Transparency Project into a simple protocol for assignment design that instructors can easily implement. Professors who have signed on to the project (click here if you want to join) are asked to take three questions on board when creating assignments. For me, they offer an useful way of thinking about how to design assignments whether or not you are a formal part of the Transparency Project, and two of the questions are valid for any classroom activity, graded or non-graded:

  1. The Task: What are you asking your students to do?
  2. The Purpose: Why do they have to do it?
  3. The Criteria: How will their work be evaluated?


Maybe it’s just me, but I’m continually amazed that after some 30+ years in teaching I still write assignments that, when prompted by student comments, I find to be relatively unclear and poorly written. It’s not surprising that the students don’t always know what I am asking of them, i.e., the task.  (In fact, after reading Winkelmes’ articles, I rushed to rewrite the first assignment for one of my current classes.) And perhaps that’s the problem: the longer we’re in this business, the more we operate with certain “unwritten rules” in mind, expecting that students will know exactly what we’re thinking about – even though we haven’t told them. Quite often, the only parts of the assignment that we are explicit about are the purely technical ones (12 point type, double spaced, no more than 5 pages, etc.). So, what is it we’re asking the students to do in the assignment?


Here I’m better, but it took some years of wandering before I got there. Do we make the purpose of the assignment explicit, or do we expect the students will some intuit it? Is an assignment fundamentally about testing recall of factual information? Using that information in the context of an argument? Using evidence to argue a position? Being able to see multiple sides of an argument or carrying out a certain task? Furthermore, is the information we provide students about the purpose of the paper explicit, or written in our insiders shorthand?  Do we think that we’re giving something away by disclosing this, and that they should figure it out by themselves? The research Winkelmes has gathered is fairly convincing that the clearer we are in addressing the purpose of the assignment, the better our students will do.

Criteria for Assessment

Many faculty provide students with grading rubrics as a way of making their assessment criteria perfectly clear. Others include these details within the body of the assignment. However one does it, informing students as to how they will be graded will help them approach the assignment with greater clarity, increase their sense of control, and add to their self-confidence. If performance criteria aren’t specified, it can increase student anxiety besides leading students to focus their work on aspects of the assignment that aren’t what we intended. Again, we often assume that students know what we are asking for without our having to say it. Quite often, they don’t.

Don’t they get it anyway?

But what if they do? Many of our students seem to do perfectly well without these particular prompts. Is it that they are just smarter (and deserve a better grade) or are better able to read our minds and figure out what we’re asking for? Well, they’re not any smarter, but they might be able to read our minds better because they have a greater grasp of these “unwritten rules” of higher education. What they have, according to Tara J. Yosso, a professor of educational studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, is “navigational capital”; they understanding the rules of the game. Students who have had strong preparation through high school, who have taken a boatload of AP or IB courses, attended college courses while in high school, or whose parents are college teachers (which is often the case at Oberlin) know how to read a syllabus, how to locate the unwritten assumptions of an assignment, or – most importantly – have the confidence to ask the professor for guidance if the assignment isn’t clear to them. First-generation students, low-income, or historically underrepresented students, on the other hand, have come to college with all the “smarts” needed to do well in their classes, but they may lack the “navigational capital,” not to mention the self-confidence, to succeed.

So, should we be writing out the unwritten rules for them alone? The answer to that falls squarely within the realm of universal design. The basic principle of universal design is the importance of constructing a curriculum, a class, or an entire education that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn. By constructing assignments that specifically write out the unwritten rules (task, purpose, criteria), we not only are helping those who might not know the rules, but literally everyone in the class. But there’s more: Writing these three simple points into the assignment helps us focus and be explicit in terms of what we are asking students to do, why we are asking the to do this, and how we will grade them. Everyone’s a winner.


Benefits of transparent teaching and learning methods

Beyond these three points of assignment design, Winkelmes’ survey results suggest a few fairly easy but important practices that can improve both current and future learning in different disciplines and for different class sizes. The information below comes from her article published in Liberal Education (Spring 2013, Vol. 99:2), “Transparency in Teaching: Faculty Share Data and Improve Students’ Learning.”

In humanities courses at the introductory undergraduate level, two practices seem to benefit students’ current course learning experiences depending on the size of the class:

  • Discuss assignments’ learning goals and design rationale before students begin each assignment (in classes ranging in size from thirty-one to sixty-five students).
  • Debrief graded tests and assignments in class (in classes ranging in size from sixty-six to three hundred students).

In social science courses at the introductory undergraduate level, particularly in mid-sized level classes (31-65 students) several transparent methods have statistically significant benefits for students’ current course learning experiences:

  • Discuss assignments’ learning goals and design rationale before students begin each assignment.
  • Gauge students’ understanding during class via peer work on questions that require students to apply concepts you’ve taught.
  • Debrief graded tests and assignments in class.

In larger introductory courses in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), the following transparent methods have statistically significant benefits for students’ current course learning experiences and for their future learning:

  • Explicitly connect “how people learn” data with course activities when students struggle at difficult transition points.
  • Gauge students’ understanding during class via peer work on questions that require students to apply concepts you’ve taught.
  • Discuss assignments’ learning goals before students begin each assignment.

Students at the intermediate and advanced levels in STEM courses (again, larger classes) indicated that the following methods are helpful to their current and future learning:

  • Gauge students’ understanding during class via peer work on questions that require students to apply concepts you’ve taught.
  • Debrief graded tests and assignments in class.

As with the material on writing assignments, Winkelmes reports that many of these practices are especially beneficial for underrepresented students, for those who can’t read the unwritten rules of the game as easily as students who are more familiar with college settings. Not only do these practices improve their academic self-confidence, but it gives them a greater sense of control over their learning. What’s not to like?


A Bit of Bibliography

Cohen, P. A. 1980. “Effectiveness of Student-Rating Feedback for Improving College Instruction: A Meta-Analysis of Findings.” Research in Higher Education 13 (4): 321–41.

Dunlosky, J., and J. Metcalfe. 2009. Metacognition. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Francis, G. E., J. P. Adams, and E. J. Noonan. 1998. “Do They Stay Fixed?” The Physics Teacher 36 (8): 488–90.

Gynnald, V., A. Holstad, and D. Myrhaug. 2008. “Identifying and Promoting Self-Regulated Learning in Higher Education: Roles and Responsibilities of Student Tutors.” Mentoring & Tutoring 16 (2): 147–61.

Light, R. J. 1990. The Harvard Assessment Seminars: Explorations with Students and Faculty about Teaching, Learning, and Student Life. First Report. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Nelson, T. O., and J. Dunlosky. 1991. “When People’s Judgments of Learning Are Extremely Accurate at Predicting Subsequent Recall: The Delayed JOL Effect.” Psychological Science 2 (4): 267–70.

Perry, R., N. C. Hall, and J. C. Ruthig. 2007. “Perceived (Academic) Control and Scholastic Attainment in Higher Education.” In The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: An Evidence-Based Perspective, edited by R. P. Perry and J. C. Smart, 477–552. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

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