Tuesday, October 24, 2017

How Transparency Improves Learning

By Darryl Yong, guest blogger, Harvey Mudd College

When we clearly communicate to students the rationale behind our instructional choices, they are more likely to do what we intend, be more motivated to learn, and be more successful. It is an idea that is so simple and obvious and yet often overlooked.

Recent research suggests that being more transparent with our students can improve their learning. In one study, conducted at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), first-year students who took introductory-level courses from instructors trained to be more transparent were more likely to enroll the subsequent year (a 90 percent retention rate compared with the prevailing 74 percent rate for first-time, full-time, first-year students).

Mary-Ann Winkelmes and her colleagues at UNLV have developed a useful framework for making our teaching more transparent.
  • Be more transparent about the purpose of your course content and activities. What knowledge and skills will students get out of the course and how do those things connect to their lived experiences and personal goals? (Examples: If you have students give oral presentations to the class, explain what they will gain by honing that skill. Connect what students are learning in your class to what they have learned and will learn in future courses.)

  • Be more transparent about the tasks that students have to complete. What is the first step that students need to take on an assignment? How can students get themselves unstuck? How can students complete those tasks to get the most out of them? How can students complete those tasks efficiently? (Examples: Describe common errors that students tend to make and how to avoid them. Require students to visit your office hours or your school’s drop-in tutoring center at least once, so that they become familiar with how to get help on their work.)

  • Be more transparent about the criteria for success in your class. What do you expect good work in your class to look like? What does bad work look like? (Example: I give students this handout by MAA Past President Francis Su with annotated examples of good and bad homework problem write-ups. Francis gives this version to students in lower division courses.
One interesting finding from the work by Winkelmes and her colleagues is that while all students had improved learning outcomes in more transparent classes, the effect was greater for underrepresented students.

Why might that be? One possible explanation is that transparency creates a more level playing field for everyone. Let’s face it: students don’t walk into our classes equally prepared to learn. For example, first-generation students tend not to ask for help because they’ve not learned how, or they have coped for so long on their own that they are ashamed to ask for help. And we, because of our mathematical skill, experience, and wisdom, tend to leave a lot of things unsaid because we take them for granted. Those two things combine to confer advantages to students who have mastered the hidden curriculum of our institutions.

The key to being more transparent is to learn to see your classroom from each student’s vantage point. What would they find bewildering or frustrating or alienating? One of the best ways to do this is to ask your non-STEM colleagues to look at your syllabus and assignments. Ask them what questions and frustrations they would have.

Being more transparent with our students is not the same as coddling them. There are certain aspects of your class that is designed to engage your students in a productive struggle: that challenging proof, difficult derivation, or multi-step computation. There are other aspects of your class that you probably don’t want to cause struggle, like: what you mean when you say you want their work to be “rigorous,” how to find more example problems when the ones in the book just aren’t working for them, or whether they truly belong in your class because they couldn’t follow a calculation that you said was “obvious.”

Even if you already say things to your students during class to be more transparent, it is also important to write them down on your syllabus, assignments, and handouts. Why? Students are far too likely to miss important details that are just spoken during class instead of being written down. Also, English language learners and students with learning disabilities will appreciate having the information presented to them in multiple ways.

The amount of transparency that you provide to students depends on their maturity and the level of the course. There are times when you don’t want to be explicit about everything. For example, you don’t want to constrain their creativity by priming them with examples, you want them to struggle with figuring out what the first step should be, or you want them to be more independent in their learning. However, even then you can be transparent about your intentional vagueness. For example: “I have given you problems that may have extraneous information or missing information (like the thermal diffusivity of steel) that you will need to look up. I’m doing this to help you acclimate to what it will be like to solve problems in an industrial engineering environment.”

A few more suggestions on how to be transparent in your mathematics classroom:
  • The verb “simplify” is ambiguous and overused in mathematics. The context of a calculation determines the form of the answer that is “simplest,” but students often don’t have that intuitive sense when they’re new to the subject. Either help them develop that intuition to know what is “simplest” given the context of the material or problem or be more specific (e.g., say “express the answer as a single fraction with denominator factored as much as possible”).

  • At what point are students allowed to use tools like Wolfram Alpha, Symbolab, or Maple? If those tools are allowed, explain how to use those tools in a way that maximizes their learning.

  • Share your rationale for how you’ve chosen to assess their learning. (That is, why a final project? Why a written exam? Why is the exam timed or untimed?) Have compelling reasons for those choices that connect with your learning outcomes. Collect strategies that successful students have used to prepare for your assessments and share them with your students. If you assign writing in your class and will use a rubric to assess it, then share that rubric with your students. Consider sharing examples of good writing, annotated in a way that refers to your rubric.

  • If you teach via inquiry, explain to students why. This wonderful activity by Dana Ernst will help students understand how inquiry-based learning can help them develop independence, curiosity, and persistence.

  • In my partial differential equations class, I start every class by highlighting a current area of research and the people who are doing it. I acknowledge our field’s lack of inclusivity in the past and that I intentionally showcase women and people of color in these highlights to engage in counter-stereotyping.
Unspoken expectations set us up for disappointment and others for frustration. I know that I could be more transparent in my teaching and I invite you to comment below with your strategies and ideas for promoting transparency.

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