Mary-Ann Winkelmes: Transparency in Teaching and Learning

Mary-Ann Winkelmes has posed some of the most important questions in higher education today. As the director of the Transparency in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Project, she urges faculty to think about how they teach by asking their students to think about how they learn. We interviewed Mary-Ann in August 2015 to discuss teaching and learning, and how greater intentionality can deepen student learning and boost student success. (Interview posted: September 2, 2015)

Mary-Ann entered the world of higher education as a teacher of Italian Renaissance art and architecture. Her interest in the subject matter was quickly matched by a new curiosity about how her students were learning the content. She took a MaryAnn Winkelmesdetour from art history to focus on teaching and learning.

Her path led her to Harvard University's Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, the University of Chicago's Center for Teaching and Learning, and the University of Illinois where she created the Transparency Project in Teaching and Learning in 2010. So far, she has collected data from more than 11,500 college students in over 300 courses across 27 institutions in seven different countries.

Today, Mary-Ann is the Coordinator of Instructional Development and Research at the University of Nevada (UNLV) and an affiliate scholar in UNLV's department of history, as well as a Senior Fellow of the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U). Her research focuses on teaching interventions that enhance college students' learning, particularly for those students who are historically underserved. Data from her study of students' learning experiences identifies effective, replicable teaching practices that increase students' mastery of critical thinking skills and their academic confidence.

PIL: You founded the Transparency Project five years ago. Can you define what you mean by "transparency"? Why is transparency so critically important to higher education today?

Mary-Ann: Transparency means teaching students about more than just the course subject matter. It means telling students about your rationale for how and why you've chosen to shape their learning experiences. Most of the time, college faculty think and plan carefully about how the required work in their courses will lead students through a meaningful learning process. But students don't understand that because teachers stop short of discussing it with them. Transparency in teaching and learning requires that teachers and students talk about the process of how students are learning just as explicitly as they talk about the course content – or what students are learning.

Increasingly, transparency is important as a way of teaching equitably. Not all college students figure out on their own the reasons why assignments and homework are structured as they are, how to approach the required work, how the work benefits their learning, how to monitor if they are working effectively, and if they are working in a way that will meet the teacher's goals. This is knowledge that all students should possess before they start working on a project, but first-generation, underrepresented, and low-income students often don't start with this knowledge. They'll spend valuable work time struggling to figure out the whys and hows of an assignment before they can get to work on it. By clarifying the purposes, tasks, and criteria for assignments, class activities, and projects before students start working, teachers can provide a fairer chance for all students to succeed. Failing to provide this kind of clarity will perpetuate the disadvantages for underserved students and the advantages for more traditional students, who often have an easier time decoding the hows and whys of academic work.

Sometimes teachers worry that transparency about the purposes, tasks, and criteria of academic work risks "dumbing it down" or simplifying. Actually, the opposite is the case. When students spend less time in a trial-and-error phase, trying to figure out why an assignment matters and how to approach it, they can spend more time focusing on the important concepts. This gives them more time to master essential disciplinary skills and content knowledge, and more time to complete high-quality work.

Some instructors adhere to a "gatekeeper" perspective, insisting that if a student can't figure out the unwritten but implied purposes, tasks, and criteria for an assignment, that student shouldn't succeed in the course and shouldn't continue in the discipline. Yet to weed out all of these students before they can progress in an academic discipline is to limit the ultimate progress of that discipline. Many of our research breakthroughs come from thinkers who approached a problem differently from how their teachers and advisors did – either because they brought constructs from another discipline or because they brought unusual, non-traditional ways of thinking about the problem. Transparency in teaching and learning can ensure more of these outlier, differently-prepared thinkers make it to the upper levels of research, thus multiplying our chances for research breakthroughs.

PIL: In a field report you recently wrote for the National Teaching & Learning Forum, you cited a concerning statistic we've heard before: One-third of college freshmen do not return to school for their sophomore year. While there may be many related reasons for dropping out, such as health or personal issues and financial constraints, you also explain, "these students face an immediate and unnecessary barrier to their progress." Who are these students and what is this obstacle? How does transparency in teaching and learning help remove that barrier? Can you give an example from the classroom of how instructors encouraged struggling first-year students to remain in school?

Mary-Ann: A third of first-year college students don't return the following year. It's even more sobering to understand that black, Hispanic, Native-American and Pacific Islander students are far less likely to stay on and complete a degree than their white and Asian classmates.

You're right to cite a variety of reasons for these skewed and inequitable outcomes. Paul Tough's 2014 New York Times Magazine article showed how powerfully family income affects graduation rates, while federal and state tuition waiver programs are providing greater access to higher education. But as I've pointed out before, equity of access does not guarantee equity of educational experience. Colleges and universities have, of course, made valuable progress in addressing inequitable learning outcomes, relying upon predictive analytics and resources including advising, scholarships, tutoring, and community-building programs. Yet such efforts for the most part have not systematically studied the role that faculty can play in improving the success of underserved students. Transparent teaching is something faculty can do to help right the inequity of underserved college students' educational experiences.

The success of a pilot program last year, funded by TG Philanthropy, suggests that faculty can move the needle on underserved students' success, especially in their first year of college – when the greatest numbers drop out – with a relatively small and cost effective teaching intervention. Tia McNair and Ashley Finley at the AAC&U are my co-investigators on this project, which involved 1,180 students and 35 faculty at seven Minority Serving Institutions in 2014-2015. The main research goal was to study how faculty transparency about the design and problem-centered nature of assignments would affect students' learning experiences and the quality of students' work. As part of the project, faculty received training on how to make two take-home assignments in a course more transparently designed (accessible) and more problem-centered (relevant).

We measured the results with the Transparency Survey, and direct assessment of students' work. In courses where students received the more transparently designed assignments, students experienced significantly greater learning benefits compared with their classmates who received the unrevised versions of the assignments. Specifically, students reported gains in three areas that are important predictors of students' success: academic confidence, sense of belonging, and mastery of the skills that employers value most when hiring. While the benefits for all students in the aggregate who received the intervention were statistically significant in a small way, the benefits for first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students were significant and large. Important studies have already connected academic confidence and sense of belonging with students' greater persistence and higher grades. Our study identified transparent teaching about problem-centered learning as an easily replicable teaching method that produces these benefits.

Faculty who implemented the two revised assignments agreed to adopt this Transparent Assignment Design template to guide their discussions with students about the skills they would practice by doing the assignment, the knowledge they would gain, the tasks they would perform, and some examples of what good work looks like, so that students could judge their success while they worked on the project. We asked faculty to do this only twice during an academic term.

The implications for how faculty can encourage underserved students to stay in school and complete their degrees are clear. Just two transparently-designed, problem-centered assignments resulted in medium-to-large effects for first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students, who experienced increases in their academic confidence, sense of belonging, and awareness of their improved mastery of the skills employers value most when hiring. As our project continues, we can track the expected rise in GPAs, retention, and graduation rates of underserved students at the seven Minority Serving Institutions where the project is already underway. As the population of underserved students in college in the U.S. increases, this has ramifications for providing more equitable opportunities for all U.S. students to succeed in college. 

PIL: In our 2015 study on lifelong learning, we surveyed 1,651 recent college graduates from 10 U.S. colleges and universities and found almost three-quarters (74 percent) of the respondents believed they had the ability to learn anything on their own. Would you say that today's college graduates are more confident in their own learning abilities than perhaps, they were a decade ago? Why or why not?

Mary-Ann: The capacity to learn on one's own is an essential skill, and one that we know U.S. employers value highly when they hire new employees. Librarians' work to increase students' information literacy undoubtedly has an important impact on helping people learn on their own. But even as today's college graduates grow in confidence, some are more confident than others. First-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students' confidence levels about their capacity to learn on their own are lower than other students'.

Like PIL's study on lifelong learning, the Transparency in Teaching and Learning survey includes a question about the "ability to learn effectively on your own" (question 12). Our study – to be published in the Fall/Winter 2015 issue of AAC&U's Peer Review – demonstrates transparency increases students' confidence that they can learn on their own. What excites me even more is that while transparency increases all students' confidence to learn on their own a small amount, it increases underserved students' confidence to learn on their own a lot. To me, this is another important indicator that faculty who teach transparently are helping to right the inequities in underserved students' educational experiences.

PIL: An important aspect of encouraging student success through transparency calls on faculty "to gather, share and promptly benefit from current data about students' learning by coordinating their efforts across disciplines, institutions and countries." What benefits do faculty see when they actively participate in the Transparency Project? How can incorporating transparency into teaching and learning provide assessment opportunities for faculty? What is one small step a faculty member can take to become more transparent? How can intentionality be used in the classroom for "collaborative assessment"?

Mary-Ann: Anecdotally, faculty comment that transparency offers a way for them to include students more often in conversations about their learning and the purposes of their academic work. This may be partly responsible for the increases in students' sense of belonging and academic confidence that we observed. Others have noticed increases in students' motivation in class, higher-level class discussions with sharper focus, more on-time completion of assignments, and fewer disputes about grades. A number of faculty have written about their experiences using transparency in the classroom, both onsite and online.

Most faculty aren't trained to conduct large-scale learning outcomes assessment in their courses or across courses – unless their specialty is educational psychology or statistics. I certainly wasn't, and the Transparency Project's analyses and reports for instructors rely on a team of researchers and statisticians, including Jeffrey Butler, Jennifer Golanics, Kati Harriss Weavil and Michelle Zochowski. Most faculty who are interested in assessing their courses rely on their own institutions' assessment tools, like teacher evaluation surveys or learning outcomes assessments for General Education programs. Some cross-institutional tools like the National Survey of Student Engagement and the Personal and Social Responsibility Inventory provide good information about students' learning experiences, too, although this information sometimes doesn't make it all the way back to the faculty who might use it to adjust their teaching.

The Transparency Project is different and complementary to these in that it surveys students about their learning experiences in connection with specific teaching methods. At the end of each term, a participating faculty member receives a report that describes their students' (aggregated) views of their learning experiences in comparison with similar students at other institutions at the same level in the same discipline, both in courses that used a transparent teaching intervention and in those that didn't. The collaboration of our faculty participants across institutions allows us to provide this comparative data in large enough sample sizes to offer statistical significance. This helps faculty to identify what one small adjustment they might make to their teaching that would be highly likely to benefit their students' learning.

PIL: John Dewey, the great philosopher and educational reformer, once wrote, "We only think when we are confronted with problems." If professors provide students with problems to think about and try to solve, where do librarians fit in? Most academic librarians working with students see them outside of the classroom, at the reference desk, student meetings, and group projects for classes. How can librarians help student think about their own learning processes? Do you have an example of librarians, students, and transparency effectively working together? Can libraries be a setting where students can spend "quality time-on-task"?

Mary-Ann: The role of academic librarians as guides and mentors is expanding. At UNLV, my librarian colleagues intentionally focus on helping students in at least two critical ways. First, there's addressing the student's question. This has to be done effectively and efficiently, while still allowing for the second and equally critical opportunity to help the student: Clarifying the long-term lesson embedded in the short-term solution. Librarians have a responsibility to help students become savvy and effective users of digital and print resources. But a high level of information literacy is not a student's top priority when s/he has a specific course-related question to address quickly. And librarians don't often have the luxury of a whole class period to help students master a lesson.

Here at UNLV, our librarians adopted the three-part transparency framework of purpose, task, and criteria as a way of framing conversations with students and encouraging students' intentionality about what and how they are learning. UNLV librarians including Melissa Bowles-Terry, John Watts, Xan Goodman, Sue Wainscott, and Greg Carr were early adopters. For students who are taking courses where assignments are already framed in this way, it's a helpful reminder of how to focus on what the student really needs. And for students encountering the framework for the first time, it's an efficient and relatively intuitive way to address the problem or question quickly. So it's appealing to students as a time-saver.

To the extent that the transparency framework helps librarians enhance students' metacognition, transparency can be a lever for achieving that second critical goal of providing a lesson in information literacy while answering a student's more specific question.

An unexpected benefit of transparency for librarians here at UNLV was that the simple vocabulary of "purpose, task, and criteria" made for easier conversations with colleagues in online education, student affairs, student advising, and academic tutoring – all of whom share that tricky challenge of helping a student answer a particular question while also finding a long-term lesson they can take away. Where librarians were using Dee Fink's framework and vocabulary for creating significant learning experiences (2003), other student services offices on campus used different frameworks and vocabularies to guide their work: the Quality Matters Rubric, the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education Shared Ethical Principles and Learning and Development Outcomes, the National Academic Advising Association Core Values of Academic Advising, the American College Personnel Association and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators Student Learning Outcomes and Standards of Professional Practice. Transparency offers a simple, unifying language that allows for clearly focused conversations about how librarians and campus partners frame their work together.

The simple, accessible language of transparency in teaching and learning can help librarians, not only in their work with students, but also in their collaborations with campus colleagues in a variety of units who all aim to improve student success.


Mary-Ann is the Coordinator of Instructional Development and Research at UNLV, and Principal Investigator for the Transparency in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, which she founded at the University of Illinois.

She has held senior leadership roles at several campus teaching centers and was recognized nationally by the Professional and Organizational Development (POD) Network in Higher Education's Robert J. Menges Award for Outstanding Research in Educational Development.

Smart Talks are informal conversations with leading thinkers about the challenges of higher education, teaching, and lifelong learning in the digital age. The interviews are an occasional series produced by Project Information Literacy (PIL).

PIL is an ongoing and national research study about how students find and use information for courses and for use in their everyday lives and as lifelong learners. This interview with Mary-Ann Winkelmes was made possible with the generous support of a research grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences (IMLS), creating strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. Smart Talk interviews are open access and licensed by Creative Commons.

cc license

"Mary-Ann Winkelmes: Transparency in Teaching and Learning" (email interview), by Alison Head and Kirsten Hostetler, Project Information Literacy, Smart Talk Interview, no. 25 (2 September 2015), is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.