Small Teaching Changes, Big Learning Benefits

If you could change one thing about your teaching, what would it be?

That question was the catalyst for a quest that began nearly a decade ago, when I encouraged a group of educators at the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to choose a teaching adjustment that they believed would most benefit their students. After a seminar series focusing on evidence-based teaching strategies, we realized that most faculty aren’t provided with the information needed to answer that challenge.

Visit the ACUE Expert Series home page for more teaching insights.

There is no shortage of research on effective strategies to consider, but which method will best serve the needs of my student population? What changes are sustainable given my current course structure? And how will I know if my adjustments are having an impact on my students’ learning?

As the academic term comes to a close, many college teachers may have similar questions. A break between semesters provides a good opportunity to reflect and prepare for new students and classes.

To answer these questions, the Chicago and Illinois faculty wanted more information about their own students’ learning experiences. This line of inquiry has been the focus of the Transparency in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education project (TILT Higher Ed) since the spring of 2008, when Chicago faculty contributed to designing the TILT Higher Ed online survey. Today, the survey consists of 14 demographic questions and 49 questions about students’ learning experiences. (View all the questions on the TILT Higher Ed survey web site.)

The surveys have proven to be a useful resource for individual teachers as they decided which adjustments might most benefit their particular students. But new research on data from TILT Higher Ed’s surveys is helping us establish a set of practical and relevant techniques that can guide any college instructor looking to make a small, sustainable adjustment this year.

Studying Transparent Instruction

Today’s college-going student population is dramatically different from just a few decades ago. Underrepresented, first-generation and low-income students now comprise the new majority of students entering our doors and online learning environments each year, and their completion rates lag far behind their peers.

In 2014, TILT Higher Ed and the Association of American Colleges & Universities teamed up to address this gap. At seven minority-serving institutions, our goal has been to scale the use of transparent instruction to significantly enhance underserved student success.

Transparent instruction promotes an inclusive learning environment where teachers and students engage in conversations about the relevance of academic work to students’ lives beyond college, as well as expectations for work process and performance. In the TILT–AAC&U study, teachers and students focused discussion on three aspects of students’ academic work: Purposes, Tasks, and Criteria.

As the word “tilt” suggests, a small adjustment to your teaching can offer students a transparent view of why and how you’ve structured their learning experiences. That’s why we asked the teachers in our study to select just two take-home assignments to redesign along TILT’s guidelines.

We provided all teachers with a Transparent Assignment Template as a guide, but we intentionally avoided rigid protocols for two main reasons. First, we expected variation. We knew that student–teacher communication could take place online or in brick-and-mortar classrooms, in synchronous or asynchronous conversations, in structured or unstructured discussions. Second, we wanted to demonstrate that any teacher can adopt Transparent Assignment Design at their own discretion to improve their students’ learning.

In our study, 35 teachers at seven institutions selected two assignments to revise based on the template guidelines below. Each instructor taught the same course to two different groups of students—amounting to a sample of 1,180 students. The difference was that the intervention group of students received the revised assignments and the control group of students got the original assignments.

Examining the Evidence

When the study wrapped up last year, the results were encouraging.

The students with access to transparent instruction reported significantly higher levels of satisfaction in three areas considered to be important predictors of success: academic confidence, sense of belonging, and improvement of skills that employers value. The positive outcomes were even greater for first-generation, low-income, and traditionally underrepresented students [1].

In a similar, simultaneous study of 1,143 UNLV students, those with access to transparent instruction not only reported increases in these three categories, they also persisted at higher rates than students from the less-transparent groups. In the following academic year, retention rates for these students were significantly higher [2].

Faculty observations reflected these patterns. Faculty reported higher quality student work, less student resistance, and more on-time assignment submissions for the students who were part of the transparent instruction group [3].

Transparent Instruction in Your Classroom

You can begin laying the foundation for transparent instruction as you prepare for your first day of class in January. Over your break, start by identifying two assignments that you would like to revise. The goal of this review will be to give students a transparent view into how—and why—you’ve structured the learning experiences in your course.

More from the experts: Derek Bruff on connecting the dots in the classroom

Remember to consult our template and use your own discretion. Here are some other key guidelines to follow:


Students should understand the skills they will practice and the knowledge they will gain from selected assignments. They should also know how these skills and knowledge are relevant to their lives, and to their abilities to address real-world problems.


Teachers and students should discuss and understand the specific steps that may be required to complete the assignment. Which steps would be helpful? Which ones could be unproductive? The goal is not to pamper students, but to help them focus their time effectively on producing high quality work.


Students must have a clear understanding of what the teacher’s expectations are as well as the criteria being used to assess their learning. So students and teachers should engage in a review of, and discussion about, existing work examples (of varying quality) before students complete their own assignments.

In the module Aligning Activities and Assignments With Course Outcomes, part of ACUE’s Course in Effective Teaching Practices, my UNLV colleagues Anna C. Smedley-López, David Copeland, and Sharon Jalene further discuss how these practices benefitted students and helped them improve as instructors.

Visit TILTs home page for sample materials around the transparent teaching process and more. To administer the TILT survey to your class, sign up here to participate.

Please also share your insights, experiences, and individual approaches to transparent instruction in the comments section.

Mary-Ann Winkelmes is a featured subject matter expert for Aligning Activities and Assignments With Course Outcomes, a module from ACUE’s Course in Effective Teaching Practices. She is the Coordinator of Instructional Development and Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Principal Investigator of the Transparency in Learning and Teaching Project, and a Senior Fellow at the Association of American Colleges & Universities. 


  1. Winkelmes, Mary-Ann, Matthew Bernacki, Jeffrey Butler, Michelle Zochowski, Jennifer Golanics, and Kathryn Harriss Weavil. “A Teaching Intervention that Increases Underserved College Students’ Success.” Peer Review vol. 18, no. 1/2 (Winter/Spring 2016).
  2. Winkelmes, Mary-Ann, Matthew Bernacki, Jeffrey Butler, Michelle Zochowski, Jennifer Golanics, and Kathryn Harriss Weavil. “A Teaching Intervention that Increases Underserved College Students’ Success.” Peer Review vol. 18, no. 1/2 (Winter/Spring 2016).
  3. Transparency and Problem-Centered Learning. (Winter/Spring 2016) Peer Review vol.18, no. 1/2 and Winkelmes, Mary-Ann, David E. Copeland, Ed Jorgensen, Alison Sloat, Anna Smedley, Peter Pizor, Katharine Johnson, and Sharon Jalene. “Benefits (some unexpected) of Transparent Assignment Design.” National Teaching and Learning Forum, 24, 4 (May 2015), 4-6.

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