‘Ridiculously Simple and Very Successful’
How faculty in Virginia are making assignments more transparent and equitable
- Ben Dedman
Post Date: May 23, 2021
In her English as a second language (ESL) courses at Northern Virginia Community College, Breana Bayraktar teaches students from an “amazing variety” of backgrounds. Some previously completed graduate degrees in their home countries; others had their education interrupted and never finished high school. Many are first-generation college students.
“As educators at a community college, we really try to understand where our students are coming from. That is one of our strengths,” Bayraktar says. “Being willing to look at our classes from their eyes helps to make that connection.”
Since 2017, Bayraktar and hundreds of other faculty across Virginia have participated in professional development workshops that help faculty examine their assignments from a student’s perspective, making each part—learning outcomes, tasks, and assessments—more transparent and equitable.
“Transparent assignments help to take some of the guesswork out and demystify the curriculum,” says Jodi Fisler, senior associate for assessment policy and analysis for the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV), the state’s coordinating agency for postsecondary education. “This is especially important for students who may feel more insecure about whether they belong in college.”
SCHEV’s assignment design workshops began through the Multi-State Collaborative, a thirteen-state consortium that worked from 2014 to 2018 to improve learning outcomes assessment at public institutions. Since then, the workshops have expanded across more institutions through a variety of statewide and on-campus efforts to improve teaching and learning and reduce equity gaps.
“Conversations about equity often focus on financial aid, access, wraparound services, all of which is crucially important,” Fisler says. “But we don’t often talk about what happens in the classroom.”
Assignment design workshops are intently focused on the classroom. Small, interdisciplinary groups of faculty members present one of their assignments to their peers, who take notes, ask questions, and provide detailed written suggestions.
The newest iterations of the statewide workshops—which draw from the Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT) framework developed by Mary-Ann Winkelmes, executive director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Brandeis University—have reached hundreds of faculty online during the pandemic. Supported by funding from Lumina Foundation, the workshops are expanding this summer through faculty learning communities on individual campuses and online across multiple institutions. In addition to redesigning assignments, some participants will join a research project to survey their students at the beginning and end of the course, collect the students’ work for learning outcomes assessment, and evaluate how transparent design can improve outcomes for their students.
“It’s ridiculously simple and very successful,” says Pamela Tracy, professor of communication studies and director of the Center for Faculty Enrichment at Longwood University. “It’s just pulling faculty together to have conversations.”
Grassroots Faculty Development at Northern Virginia Community College
While faculty at Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) have used the concept of transparency in their own courses and assignments for years, it wasn’t until 2018 that the first assignment design workshops began popping up across the college’s six campuses.
After several NVCC faculty participated in SCHEV’s statewide assignment design workshops and train-the-trainer sessions, grants from the NVCC administration supported faculty leaders in providing workshops for colleagues on their own campuses. The techniques quickly became popular across the college, with brown bag lunches, small-group workshops, and a large workshop in 2020 that featured Winkelmes as a keynote speaker.
The simplicity of TILT makes it especially attractive to faculty who want to improve their teaching but have large teaching and advising loads that prevent them from committing to intensive faculty development programs.
“It doesn’t require completely redesigning a course. The assignments don’t even need to change too much,” Bayraktar says. “By changing the packaging and how you introduce the assignment to students, it can help them to be successful.”
Bayraktar has hosted several assignment design workshops and learning communities on campus and across the state. “One of the challenges is trying to facilitate and not lead a faculty group,” she says. Workshop participants need to be able to balance their academic and teaching expertise with an openness to ask questions and accept feedback. “It really should be a group of peers.”
By putting faculty from disciplines like biology, childhood education, and English in a single workshop, “it forces us to step outside of our somewhat narrow area of expertise and look through the eyes of our students,” Bayraktar says. “When I look at an assignment from a math colleague, I’m like, ‘Gosh, it’s been so many years since I did math.’ My feedback can give a different perspective of how a novice student approaches what happens in the classroom.”
In Bayraktar’s ESL courses, students often have difficulty seeing the value of assignments and genres that they might never encounter outside of school. By being clear in her explanations, she helps students see how they can apply research and writing skills in different ways, whether it’s in other college courses, in a note to their child’s teacher, or in an incident report at work. “TILT helps me to strip away some of the academic language and make the assignments connect to what the students’ goals are,” she says.
Bayraktar is helping to lead a statewide research project on the effects of TILT pedagogies on student learning and success. She is recruiting faculty participants to administer student surveys at the beginning and end of their courses, collect student work artifacts that will be scored using AAC&U’s VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) rubrics, and participate in interviews about their experiences. Combining these results with SCHEV’s student success data will provide the researchers with a robust picture of TILT’s impact.
“Designing assignments to make them more accessible and clear just fits very well with who our students are,” Bayraktar says. “Our students are very capable of doing the work, but sometimes they need a little confidence boost to show them that they can understand what is being asked of them.”
Scaling Up Assignment Design at Longwood University
The Center for Faculty Enrichment (CAFE) at Longwood University, a public university in Farmville, Virginia, uses assignment design charrettes (a form of small-group workshops), the TILT process, and a backward design model to help faculty improve their teaching. Longwood faculty are encouraged to create assignments that are meaningful, designed with diverse learners in mind, and aligned with overall course learning outcomes.
“It’s amazing how many ideas that [assignment design charrettes] generate,” says Linda Townsend, Longwood’s director of assessment, who collaborates with CAFE to lead assignment design initiatives. “Because it’s interdisciplinary, faculty end up sharing ideas that others within a department haven’t thought about.”
Since 2016, CAFE has scaled up their workshops by integrating them into three large campus initiatives. When Longwood hosted the debate between vice presidential candidates Mike Pence and Tim Kaine in 2016, stakeholders across campus seized the opportunity to incorporate topics related to debate, the election, and democracy into courses. CAFE hosted a summer teaching and learning institute that included a series of assignment design workshops to help faculty prepare new assignments and curricula. Later, when the university implemented a new quality enhancement plan, about half of Longwood’s faculty attended a workshop hosted by CAFE and the Greenwood Library focused on teaching research and developing research assignments using inclusive practices like TILT. Now, as Longwood works to implement its new core curriculum, Civitae, CAFE staff are hosting small-group workshops and faculty learning communities on TILT assignment design.
“When you pull faculty together who have the same mission across disciplines, who share the same learning outcomes for a project, it creates an environment where those outcomes become more valued,” Tracy says.
One common element of all of these faculty development initiatives is the use of assignment design charrettes, a process created by the National Institute of Learning Outcomes Assessment. In small groups, faculty ask questions and provide each other with feedback on one of their assignments. “If you’re going to give somebody feedback,” Tracy says, “you need to know what the course is about, when the assignment happens in the course, what the assignment’s purpose is, what rubric or assessment will be used, and how students respond to the assignment or what they find especially challenging.”
Whether it’s accomplished through assignment design charettes or through TILT, making assignments simpler for students to understand makes the entire teaching process easier and more effective. Students ask fewer questions because they know what to do, and instructors end up writing fewer comments because the quality of students’ work has improved.
“I got hooked on it as a faculty member,” says Adam Franssen, associate professor of biology and assistant director of the Center for Faculty Enrichment, who first learned about TILT as a participant in a CAFE workshop.
Franssen teaches many first-generation, women, rural, and other students who have traditionally had less access to STEM degrees and careers. As he continues to make his own courses more transparent, part of his role at CAFE is working with faculty across campus to “TILT” their assignments. One ongoing partnership with the Office of Disability Resources is helping faculty use TILT as a universal design technique to support all learners. “Transparency doesn’t just help the most marginalized or underrepresented students,” Franssen says. By making outcomes and expectations clearer on assignments, “we can make them accessible to everyone at the same time.”
In her communications studies courses, Tracy TILTs all of her assignments and records herself when she gives students assignment instructions. Posting the videos online ensures students always have access to her explanations. A first-generation college graduate herself, Tracy knows first-hand how important transparency is for her students. “I knew nothing about what it meant to go to college,” she says. “Faculty need to be able to create assignments that make sense and connect the dots for those learners.”
Since 2018, Tracy and Townsend have been active in facilitating and participating in statewide workshops. As part of SCHEV’s TILT initiatives this summer, Tracy and Franssen are organizing several interdisciplinary faculty learning communities that will meet multiple times over the summer to implement transparent assignments in one section of participants’ courses. After the next academic year, they will be able to compare results from TILTed sections with those that did not include the redesigned assignments.
“Assignment design seems like such a simple concept, yet it engages faculty from different disciplines, from community colleges, and from four-year institutions,” Townsend says. “A willingness to work together, collaborate, and make connections has helped to move this work beyond individual campuses and grow it throughout the state.”
Ben Dedman is a writer and staff editor at AAC&U.