Use Transparent Assignment Descriptions to Ensure Success for Diverse Students

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A transparent assignment description makes explicit to students the purpose of the work you are asking them to do, the skills and knowledge they will need to use to complete the assignment, the steps to success, and ways they can evaluate their work. This does not mean that you are making the work of the assignment too easy for students or suppressing their creativity, but instead you are ensuring that they aren’t struggling to guess what the assignment entails. In fact, students will do their best work and work hardest when they have a clear understanding of the work an assignment requires of them.

Below you will find the five key elements of an assignment description that effectively guide students into and through the work of an assignment. After each element is explained, you will find an example (from a human development class). At the end of this document, you will find data about the impact of transparent assignment description on the success of underrepresented students, students of color, and first-generation students.

Element 1: Purpose

Students don’t always see the value of the assignments we give them. When students see the intrinsic value and purpose of an assignment, they approach the work thoughtfully rather than doing the work superficially as a hoop to jump through. This means we need to explain to students how the assignment will help them learn in our class, will help them be more developed college students, and will help them in their life outside of the university. When we, as instructors, ask ourselves how the assignment is connected to the work of the discipline and to learning in a broader way, it also helps us make explicit the kind of thinking and work that the assignment requires.

Example of a purpose section

This assignment asks you to draft an analysis of a case study of a child using two key frameworks in the field of human development. One of the goals of our course is not just to learn about theories in the discipline of human development but to use them to support the development of children. And whether you go on to work with children or just to live as a caring adult in a world full of children, this assignment gives you an opportunity to practice observing, analyzing, and responding to a real situation in which you can play a crucial role in a child’s life. This careful and thoughtful work will also help you hone your critical thinking skills, which will contribute to your overall success at the university and in life.

Element 2: Skills and Knowledge

Students don’t automatically see the connection between the preparatory work they have been doing in a course and the assignment that is meant to draw on that work. Make it clear to students what skills they have begun to learn in class that they will continue to develop through the assignment. Terms from Bloom’s Taxonomy of Cognitive Complexity can help you articulate those skills in a clear way to students. Also point students clearly to the content they will be drawing on to complete the assignment: these would be specific concepts, frameworks, or models that they will use. Refer students to the specific activities they’ve done and feedback they’re received that they will draw on to be successful on the assignment. Students will be able to gather together previous work and thinking and apply it to the assignment when you help them make these connections.

Example of a skills and knowledge section

As you do this assignment, you will apply the theories we’ve been studying in the last 4 weeks. These theories are family system theories, Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory, and Tatum’s theories of identity development. In class you have been practicing applying these theories to scenarios. You’ve used the theories to analyze scenarios to identify problems and propose solutions. In this assignment you will analyze a longer and more complex case study of a child and her family. You will draw on the skills you are developing to analyze real life situations using these different theories. You will also be practicing how to use two theories together to analyze a case. It will be helpful to you to review the feedback I’ve given you on your “Scenario Reaction” writing: you can use that feedback to think about how to improve your analytic work for this assignment.

Element 3: Steps for Success

Much of what we do as experts is work we do automatically. We don’t always realize that the work we do and the work we ask students to do involves preparatory steps, action steps, and metacognitive steps. Make these steps explicit to students so that they can make a successful attempt at the thinking and the work you want them to practice and demonstrate. Specify mistakes that they should avoid. Rather than spoon feeding them, you are creating an even more rigorous and realistic assignment when you describe fully the steps required for success. And students will be more enthusiastic and productive when they know what the assignment actually entails.

Example of a steps for success section

Preparatory steps
1. Read this assignment description carefully and note where you have questions so that I can answer them in class to help everyone understand the assignment fully.
2. Reread your writing about family system theories, Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory, and Tatum’s theories of identity development and note where you drew connections between those theories and where you showed differences between the theories.
3. Reread my comments on your “Scenario Reactions” writings and note for yourself my suggestions for ways to improve your analyses. Choose one suggestion and commit to using that in this assignment.
4. Read the case study “Keisha” at least twice. The first time, read for the gist: learn who the “characters” are and to get a sense of the events and timeline. The second time, read analytically, identifying what you think are the key problems in the case and then considering how the theories listed above can help you more fully analyze those problems. Make notes to record these new ideas.

Action steps
Focus and deepen your analysis by creating a two-part paper. The first part is your analysis of the case. In this part, you will identify what you consider to be the major problems faced by the child or family featured in the case and then analyze those problems using human development theories. Analysis here means using a theory to see more of the problem, to see particular factors of the problem, or to connect the problem to other contexts and issues. You’ll need to fully explain those theories as you use them to pick apart and more fully conceptualize those problems. Do not cite lectures or PowerPoint presentations: demonstrate your understanding of the course readings. Use at least three details from the case as evidence that the theories you identify in your analysis are actually at work here. So, for example, let us say that you feel a central problem in the case is that the child in the case is struggling to play productively with peers because she has different cultural concepts about play. You might decide that a specific theory about cultural psychology can help us understand that struggle. Be sure you fully explain your understanding of that theory and then apply it to the case. Then you might use two short excerpts from the case to show how the child in the case does or does not do things that the theory predicts or suggests. Do not spend lots of time in this section retelling the case. Your job here is to show how events in the case can be more fully understood using development theories.

In the second part of your paper, you will suggest one or more solutions to the problems you have identified in the case. These solutions should stem from your analysis of the problems and should also be shaped by your understanding of the theories you are using. Use three well-chosen pieces of evidence from the case to support your claim that these solutions will support the child in the case. Also in this second part, don’t just talk generally about your solution: propose a detailed, concrete, plan for action. The key here is detail: could a parent, teacher, or social worker follow your plan and would all her questions be answered if she read your case study analysis? Again, your plan should be fully grounded in the theories you are using in your analysis. In this section, you will also discuss what the possible consequences of your solution/s might be: I want to hear both the things you hope to have happen and the things that might not work so well.

It may help you if you write to an adult in the case. This will help you remember to be analytic and structured in your writing. This fictitious reader will need you to spell out the problems and the solutions in a well-organized way. She needs you to explain what is happening in the case using theories of human development in a clear way, and in such a way that she can really see how developmental principles are at work in this case. Your evidence should help her think (for example) “Oh yes I do see how cultural mismatch really is going on here!” If you think that this will help your writing, why not start out your paper this way, by addressing the adult who you’d like to read your analysis. Your writing will still be formal, but you will be focused on explaining what you understand in clear and detailed language.

Element 4: Criteria for Success

Assignment descriptions should articulate for students (and for ourselves) the necessary parts of an assignment and the levels of performance or achievement that they should aim for with each of these parts. Including a grading rubric as part of your assignment helps you think fully about what you are asking students to demonstrate in an assignment and they can be used by students to monitor their work. Designing rubrics takes significant time and energy, but it is a worthwhile investment because it helps clarify the assignment for you and your students. While it can be tempting to simply borrow rubrics from other sources, this is not a good idea because a rubric from another assignment won’t align with the assignment you have in mind. Come see us for help designing an effective rubric.

Element 5: Submission details

It’s easy for students to spend too much time focusing on formatting and submission worries rather than using their energy to do the meaningful thinking an assignment requires, so be sure to contain that information for them at the very end of your assignment description. Explain the following kinds of details to students: the style guidelines they should follow; font size; margins; file type; submission dates for drafts, feedback, final drafts; and where and how to submit their work (class, Brightspace, or other platform). Be specific and detailed regardless of the kind of assignment you are giving students (papers, presentations, videos, artwork, etc.). Having all these logistical questions answered will make them feel comfortable and help them focus on the thinking they need to do, not its packaging.

Example of a Submission Details Section

Your case study paper should be 5 pages in length. Use APA format, double-space your type, and use twelve-point font. APA style is used by scholars who work in psychology, education, and other social science fields. You should use it when you cite others’ words or work in your writing. Details about APA style can be found on the form “Writing in APA Style” on Brightspace under “Course Documents.” Type up your references in a bibliography at the end of your case study paper. Your assignment should be in Word (.docx) or rich text format (.rtf). Submit your work through the assignment link in Brightspace on October 15 by 11:59 pm.


  • Winkelmas, M., Boye, A., & Tapp, S. (Eds.). (2019). Transparent design in higher education teaching and leadership: A guide to implementing the transparency framework institution-wide to improve learning and retention. Stylus.

CATLOE can help!

As you design transparent assignments for your course, you may have questions or need some guidance. Please feel free to reach out to CATLOE to schedule an individual consultation.