Illustration of educational items such as papers, ruler, glasses, formulas, grades.
Image by chenspec from Pixabay 

This post is the second installment in the series that describe the main characteristics, major benefits, design considerations, and practices and challenges of implementing an ungrading approach. This second blog presents the types of ungrading practices, challenges to implementation, and main takeaways derived from the book chapters and discussion with my colleagues in the Ungrading book club.  

Types of Ungrading Practices

To begin, it is important to recap that the underlying concept supporting ungrading is deep, extensive, and formative feedback. This means that instructors are expected to design low-stakes formative assessments and devote substantial time and effort to craft feedback that students can use to revise their work. This section summarizes several contributions the book chapters authors made in regards to pedagogical practices, strategies, tips, and resources to adopt ungrading. Instructors can combine the ungrading practices or use them as stand-alone activities. 

Approaches to Assignments

  • Portfolios: Students can build their portfolios with different digital tools that allow them to create personal or professional materials that are useful beyond the class (e.g., website, content curation). The critical element in a portfolio assignment is that there needs to be space for critical thinking and metacognitive work that can be shared with others. An additional element can include portfolio conferences. For these conferences, students meet with their instructors to review their course work and make annotations about their learning journey (they can also discuss their final grade).
  • Project-based Learning, Problem-based Learning, Inquiry-based Learning: Students work on activities that relate to their own experiences, real-life applications, and ill-structured scenarios. These activities encourage students to work with others, find solutions, investigate deeper, and apply concepts studied in the course to realistic situations. 
  • Staged Assignments: Students work on reviewing/redoing assignments to allow them to learn from the feedback they received from their peers and/or instructor.
  • Minimal Grading: Use of a holistic or simplified grading schema (e.g., pass/fail, strong/satisfactory/weak).

Student Participation

  • Contract Grading: Students can be graded over the labor completed. Students are responsible for reviewing their workload in the class and determining how they will accomplish it. Students will be in a process of understanding why grades matter to them and that the grade they give themselves will be attached to the amount of work they complete. Students sign a contract that clearly specifies the assignments and student responsibilities to achieve an A-C letter grade in the course. This grading system can allow students to negotiate their contracts with instructors. 
  • Process Letters: An activity where students describe their learning process and how they evolve in their work in the class. This can be multimodal (e.g., presentations, reflections that combine audio, video, and text) and/or accompany major assignments.
  • Student-made Rubrics: Students can develop their own rubrics, which can become a learning activity in itself. 
  • Participatory Voices: Students can contribute to course content by creating content, adding items to the syllabus, selecting the type/format of feedback they want to receive, evaluating peers, and developing an intellectual voice. Through self-evaluation and peer evaluation, students can reflect on their learning, understand the process of evaluating others, and focus on excellence and building confidence. Students are given a set of guiding questions to engage in self-and peer evaluation. At the end of the project or term, they recommend a grade for themselves and their peers.
  • Declaration Quiz: A quiz that asks students to select a checklist of the assignment requirements that they have completed. This can be a low-stakes assignment that helps students reflect on how they accomplished the task. Instructors can create declaration quizzes for each assignment and associate the number of points to the letter-based system.

Interaction

  • Peer Assessment: When students work in groups, they can evaluate each other. Students can write about their contributions to the group projects as well as their experiences with the team. This can give instructors a view of the team dynamics and activities that are not usually visible.
  • Grade-Free Zones: This involves reviewing major assignments and/or providing a sandbox space for students to experiment before they engage in completing formal assignments. Students can submit early assignments or portions of them for peer comments or the instructor’s early feedback. 

Mastery Orientation

  • Mastery Learning Artifacts: Students collect learning artifacts that they have developed to demonstrate their mastery of the learning concepts based on the exemplary work and expectations provided by the instructor. Students submit these artifacts at the end of the term. In addition, students describe the areas of growth based on the instructor’s feedback (e.g., revisions). 
  • Single-point Rubrics: This type of rubric includes criteria and fixed binary points  (done = 1; not done =0). Comments can be added to either point to note the improvements to be made (in case it is not done) and to highlight the aspects that go beyond expectations. A benefit of this type of rubric is that it encourages mastery of content and keeps students’ focus away from the grade itself. 
  • Feedback Logs: Students collect feedback and identify the areas in which they received more feedback, work out strategies to improve those areas, and reflect on the ways they are learning.
  • Feedback and Revisions: Students work on a series of drafts, and the instructor provides comments that students are expected to incorporate in the next revised draft. A grade can be added to the final draft.  
  • Self-Assessment: Consider metacognitive activities that engage students in their own evaluation of learning and in dialogue with the instructor. Encourage students to develop their own standards and self-scrutiny practices.  
  • Student Individual Plan: Students articulate goals and values for themselves about a class or a project. The instructor can help students by providing reflection guidelines and templates for developing their own goals. 

Challenges to Implementation

While ungrading encourages a shift from a focus on grades to a focus on feedback and metacognitive activities for student learning and success, its implementation is not without challenges. The challenges range from local critiques to structural and how-tos. 

  • One of the biggest challenges is the misunderstanding of what ungrading involves –an active activity that engages students and instructors with grades as a system, which is different from not grading. Without having a clear understanding of the concept itself, the rationale behind it, and how it will benefit students more than a grade-based system, using alternative means for grading may jeopardize the student learning experience. 
  • A second challenge is the structural system of grades that prioritizes performance over learning. If the focus continues to be on how students perform in a class rather than on their learning, Kohn and Stommel argue that using an ungrading system that gets rid of grades will not be sufficient to push toward a system that creates learning spaces for critical thinking, reflection, and metacognition. 
  • A third challenge involves the redefinition of the curriculum, innovative pedagogy, and how to assess learning. If the idea of content coverage and memorization of facts prevails, learning is treated more as information transfer –from the instructor or textbook to the students. In this transfer, students may not necessarily own their learning. Along with this is the way assessments are designed to emphasize judgment of students’ performance. If the teaching method does not allow room for real learning, ungrading will not make a difference. Thus, the convergence of changes to the curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment methods is of utmost importance. 
  • A fourth challenge is more systemic and structural. Kohn argues that control, in many educational cases, prevents students’ choice and voice in their learning journeys. If ungrading is to have a way in educational contexts, instructors, and even administrators, will be invited to relinquish some of the control they exert over students’ performance to welcome students’ decisions related to their learning needs and interests. 
  • A fifth challenge is a deep and widespread belief that grades reflect learning and action. There is a great concern that if grades are to be eliminated, students will not complete their assignments, need to do more work, or even skip classes. Also, instructors will have to “grade” more and be overburdened. 
  • A final challenge is the over-reliance on rubrics that, according to Khon (foreword, p.xvii), is a system for “judging students…They offer umpteen different axes along which to make students think about their performance— often at the cost of becoming less immersed in what they’re doing.” It is not that ungrading does not provide guidance but it is important to avoid overcontrol evaluation practices. Instructors will need to analyze when and how rubrics help students focus on the learning process (and not solely on the points they get). 

Takeaways

The book offered clear rationales, experiences, and strategies that instructors could consider if they feel they want to move away from the grade-focused system. In addition, as a designer, I have a better understanding and collection of resources to use during my consultations with faculty who might be looking into authentic and alternative means for assessment and grading. 

Ungrading requires a reconceptualization of the curriculum, pedagogical, and assessment practices. If an alternative means of assessing student learning is to be implemented, the content, activities, and assignments need to open opportunities for students to engage in their own process of learning, reflection, and feedback. If we don’t level the playing field for students, no grading (or ungrading) system would be worth trying. 

Grades are considered to be problematic because they contribute to widening the educational equity gaps. Ungrading, as a student-centered approach, can help mitigate some of the inequalities that students experience for access to successful learning. Since not all students come with the same knowledge and skills, ungrading, as a system that personalizes learning and assessments, will orient each student to focus on the feedback that they need. 

Ungrading does not mean that instructors do not grade or that students have a free pass. Ungrading requires a deeper understanding of what learning means and how to design learning activities and contexts in which it can be evidenced. There is no universal magic approach to do it. If you are seriously considering moving to ungrading practices, start small, one step at a time. 

Have you ventured into ungrading? If so, how did it go? What works and what does not? If not, what are your thoughts about ungrading? I’d like to invite you to share comments or experiences. 

References

Blum, S. D. (2020). Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). West Virginia University Press.

Stommel, J. (June 3, 2022). The word “ungrading. [Twitter post]. https://twitter.com/Jessifer/status/1532921663980986369 

Warner, J. (January 4, 2016). I Have Seen the Glories of the Grading Contract…and I’m not going back. Inside Higher Ed. [Blog post]. https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/just-visiting/i-have-seen-glories-grading-contract

Over the last couple of terms, I joined a series of reading sessions with instructional design colleagues to read Alfie Khon and Susan Blum’s book Ungrading. Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) and discuss the practices and implications of this approach to reconceptualize assessment design and the place of grading. This two-part blog aims to capture the takeaways from those discussions including the main concepts, approaches, types of activities, implications, and challenges of adopting ungrading practices. This first part of the blog covers a brief overview of the concept of ungrading, its major benefits, and design considerations; and the second blog will include a summary of the types of ungrading practices and challenges to implementation ––all derived from the authors’ extensive arguments and examples. For a detailed review and summary of the book chapters, you can also check the blog Assessment Design: Ideas from Ungrading Book.

Overview of Ungrading

The concept of ungrading is sparking widespread interest only recently even though educators have been studying and using ungrading approaches for quite some time. The foundational premise of ungrading is to move away from a focus on grades that judge, rank, sort, and quantify student learning to adopting an approach that focuses on using alternative and authentic means to assess learning such as self-evaluation, reflection, student-generated questions, peer feedback, to name a few. Along with that premise is the questionable ranking that comes with grading which makes students compete with one another in an artificial way. Sorensen-Unruh (chapter 9) sees ungrading as a conversational method that facilitates the communication between instructors and students about how students perform in the class. If, as underscored by the authors, grading and the fact of assigning point values to students’ performance makes more harm than good, then, why use grading? Considering that grading is rooted in our educational systems, many of these authors conclude that it becomes inevitable to grade student learning as it is currently done today.  

A clock and a checklist

Several scholars and instructors consider grading to be problematic. First, grades are not good indicators of learning. Blum (chapter 3) argues that grading assumes all students are the same, does not provide accurate information about student learning gains, is consequential, adds fear and avoidance of negative consequences, and is arbitrary and instructor-led. Second, the overemphasis on grades can lead to a decrease in intrinsic motivation, students’ excessive anxiety, and the complexity of quantifying how learning happens (Stommel, chapter 1). Third, it can also decrease interest in learning, students may feel inclined for easier tasks, and critical thinking is lacking (Alfie Khon, foreword). Fourth, grading makes students be fixated more on their grades than on the process of learning, leading them to believe that grades are all that matters in school (Khon & Blum; Talbert, 2020). And finally, too much focus on grades can be detrimental to students’ mental health (Eyler, 2022). However, ungrading does not mean dismissing grades altogether. Instead, Stommel proposes creating a learning space that fosters critical thinking, reflection, and metacognition– all skills that are valuable for 21st-century education. Likewise, Alfie Khon contends that grading can be participatory since it does not require a unilateral decision, and thus, students can also propose their own grades (with the instructor’s reservation to accept them). 

“Ultimately ungrading— eliminating the control-based function of grades, with all its attendant harms— means that, as long as the noxious institutional requirement to submit a final grade remains in place, whatever grade each student decides on is the grade we turn in, period.”

(Khon, 2020, p. xv)

While ungrading may be an innovative approach to assessments, it should be thought of carefully and adopted with a clear objective. Ungrading, as pointed out by Katopodis and Davison (chapter 7), needs a structure to be effective, allowing students to envision themselves as authoritative, creative, confident, and active, thus achieving a high impactful goal. As ungrading requires instructors to evolve in their approach to assessment, it does too for students who are expected to engage in a process of self-evaluation, self-assessment, and reflection. This requires engagement in metacognitive practices that many students might not be ready to embark on or don’t know how to do it. In addition, while ungrading is believed to be student-centered, it can deepen equity gaps if guideposts are entirely removed. Sorensen-Unruh (chapter 9) believes that ungrading is a matter of social justice –going beyond the expected student agency and aiming at having students exercise their voice and participate in assessment decisions. 

As a whole, Blum (introduction chapter) provokes us all to rethink the nature of grading considering that students’ learning conditions vary, with many enduring inequities at many levels. Blum wants us to keep focused on how “varying assessment and feedback methods contribute to the real learning of real individual learners, rather than imposing an arbitrary method of sorting.” (p. xxii); all for the sake of healthy learning. 

These are a few key points about the arguments for ungrading. While this assessment practice is taking force in higher education, there are also many critics and skeptics. The purpose of this blog is not to enter into the discussion and controversy of ungrading, but to share a few perspectives and takeaways after an intense and well-structured book club discussion. In the following section of this part-one blog, I will share considerations for designing for ungrading. 

Assessment Design Considerations

Tasks and activities from a laptop computer

The educational system requires all instructors to submit grades at the end of every term. There is dissatisfaction with the current grading practices among many instructors and students as explained at large in the book. Here is where the ungrading movement takes force to provide alternative ways to account for evidence of student learning. Riesbeck (chapter 8) argued that by implementing ungrading practices, students can focus more on the content and feedback than on the grades. The use of critique-driven learning allows for more easily quantifiable efforts, progress, and accomplishment. Each ungrading consideration is dependent on a myriad of factors that may or not apply to each instructor’s context. The bottom line in ungrading is re-envisioning the teaching and learning process, engaging students in active learning, and active self-assessment through feedback. The following are design considerations:

Decenter grading and communicate (un)grading practices

Instructors can encourage students to focus on the process of learning, instead of talking about grades, Blums says, we should talk about the purpose and goals of the activities with students. These conversations can help develop relationships with students to encourage them to own their learning and have a voice in that process. Decentering grades also involves having an ongoing conversation with students, colleagues, and administrators about assessment decisions. Although each instructor exercises their academic freedom, it is also essential to share assessment practices that work and possible changes to implement.  In these conversations, it is also important to carefully use language that conveys a clear understanding of the concept and practice of ungrading to avoid confusion, anxiety, misunderstandings, and reactions that prevent its implementation. Having these kinds of conversations can help shift the mind from a grade-focused to a learning-focused approach. A key element in these conversations is to ensure that the pedagogical reason behind the adoption of ungrading practices is not only clear but well understood (and this may take time).

Set a structure for ungrading

As with other elements of exemplary course design considerations, the structure of assessment practices is necessary. Adding a structure for ungrading assignments gives students a clear objective, steps, and flow that allow them to be consistent and accountable to their own learning goals and strategies. 

Reflect on pedagogical and assessment practices

Instructors are invited to examine more in-depth their grading policies, why they grade in the way they do, what they are grading, and how they grade. In many cases, the path to ungrading is a response to dissatisfaction with grading policies. Aaron Blackwelder (chapter 2) says that, over time, he turned into a gatekeeper; he lost focus and was more interested in meeting institutional and “rigor” requirements than building relationships with students. His students had turned into competitive grade seekers. He questioned what a grade really suggests and posits that grades fail to communicate learning. The fact that grading allocates a specific number or letter that can bring some negative feelings to students, can also negatively affect the potential for learning. Sackstein (chapter 4) calls for a change in mindset to identify the way in which learning can be communicated and understood beyond the traditional use of numbers and letters.  While Blum also argues for assessing the entire learning experience (with portfolios, for example), Sacksatein suggests considering changes in the language of grading which can provide students with an opportunity to shift the way they feel and think about their own learning. 

Teach students to view mistakes as a necessary step in the learning process

Instructors are invited to reflect on how traditional grading practices are punitive, dehumanizing, and demotivating. Gibbs (chapter 6) points out that a system that punishes students for making mistakes reinforces the notion that all learning is flawless and therefore mistakes need to be avoided. Ungrading, on the other hand, aims to implement and cement the idea that learning is a process that needs constant feedback for that learning to be consolidated. Therefore, students need to be given opportunities not only to learn from their mistakes but to act on them in an interactive way. This requires instructors to plan for assessments that include steps for review (e.g., self, peer) to help the student build their skills, and knowledge over time.

Care for students and their learning

Instructors are also invited to demonstrate more explicitly that they care and validate students’ work. Further, Gibbs (Chapter 6) argues that her teaching philosophy is better summarized by the word “freedom”, the freedom that learners have to learn and grow at their rhythm and the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them. The role of the instructor is then to be supportive in that process through feedback and empathy. Ungrading, as it is overall discussed throughout the book, does not mean that there are no assessments or grading at all. On the contrary, the assessments should focus on helping students build their knowledge and understanding in less stressful ways, allowing students to build learning habits, develop creativity, become better communicators, and connect to their lived experiences and contexts. Caring for students also involves valuing their identity as learners and what they bring into the learning environment.  

Be aware that ungrading can increase student anxiety and uncertainty

It is critical that instructors who are considering ungrading be cognizant that it involves a high level of anxiety and uncertainty on the part of students. Let’s recognize that students are so used and “conditioned” to grades that they will find it confusing not to have a grade associated with each assignment in the course. Many students consider being successful if they score a perfect grade which can be overwhelming and obscure the value of learning. Instructors who adopt ungrading should explain why and how ungrading will be done in certain classes. This will add transparency to the expectations and assumptions that instructors have about students.

Implement student voice and choice supported with personalized feedback

Instructors can help students take ownership of their learning through hands-on, real-life activities that allow students to use the content they are learning in projects of their interest, conduct research, and solve problems. Students can choose their topics and projects and the instructors can guide them to narrow topics and ensure the projects are feasible within the course timeframe. Consider feedback as a formative assessment approach that enables students to make choices about their learning strategies and needs to improve their learning tasks. Sackstein (chapter 4 ) suggests teaching students to collect feedback and identify the strategies that work for different kinds of assignment revisions. This way, students can develop better strategies that move them from lower-thinking to higher-thinking processes. 

Since ungrading promotes the use of student-self assessment and reflection practices, it implies that instructors will need to personalize and tailor feedback to meet students where they are. In addition, instructors can consider setting a culture of feedback (Gibbs, chapter 6) where instructors teach students to use feedback to improve their work, provide peer feedback effectively, and see the value of learning from their mistakes. 

Promote peer support

Authors of several chapters in this book have posited that students are more likely to give each other better feedback in the absence of grades. This kind of feedback can allow students to help each other, learn from one another, expand their awareness of their own understanding, and develop skills for life. Peer support will also help students build their confidence and autonomy to learn from each other. 

Trust students

One critical aspect of assessment is trust –trust that students do the work they are expected to do by themselves. Instructors have legitimate reasons to express their concerns and create course policies about academic integrity that lead them to adopt plagiarism systems and surveillance tools to monitor and proctor students’ work. In adopting ungrading, trust is fundamental to change the way learning and performances are assessed. It involves helping students think differently about what it means to learn. Instructors can help students evolve in their approach to learning to move away from grades to focus on their learning by including in assessments strategies for building capacity for metacognition, confidence in their skills, life-long learning goals, and owning their learning. 

Ungrading does not mean instructors don’t grade and students don’t receive grades on their work. Ungrading, as posited by the authors in the Ungrading book, is a mindset to approach student learning differently. In the second part of this blog, I will share the types of ungrading practices, implications, and challenges as presented in the book. 

References

Educators and learning designers must seek to resolve societal shortcomings, including the inequity of education and opportunity; the lack of social justice; policy issues and their implications; implicit bias in terms of race or ability; as well as layers of equity and inclusion. Building community and bridging divides are goals for all education.”

Toward Inclusive Learning Design: Social Justice, Equity, and Community. AECT Research Symposium 2021.
Representation of diversity
Diversity

This was the underlying premise of a research symposium on learning design in which I participated in the summer of 2021. While this premise emphasizes our responsibility for designing learning experiences that are not only inclusive but just, there is an implicit idea that design alone is not a sufficient condition for inclusivity; we must examine the dynamics of teaching practices and how these can evolve to be truly inclusive.

In this blog post, I share the experience of navigating the intricate and complex dynamic between inclusive learning design and teaching while co-facilitating an asynchronous workshop for faculty on inclusive teaching online. I also provide some suggestions for engaging with faculty in conversations about inclusivity that goes beyond the design stage. My experience so far leads me to argue that as an instructional designer (ID), I share the responsibility for inclusive teaching practices implemented in the class. This is a strong position that I have come to embrace as faculty seek suggestions and advice from us not only during the course design process but also during the inclusive teaching workshop.

It is important to understand that as designers we also have boundaries in terms of faculty support. Shared responsibility in teaching online does not mean telling instructors how to teach but helping discover practices to be more effective in their teaching. 

Inclusive Teaching Online Workshop

Oregon State University Ecampus has a strong commitment to supporting the diversity and inclusivity of all members of the university community. In these efforts, instructors are guided not only in designing inclusive online/blended courses but are also supported in exploring and adopting inclusive teaching strategies. To this end, Ecampus developed a four-week asynchronous Inclusive Teaching Online workshop (ITO). This workshop serves as a space to expand the conversations that are already happening across campus about how to support the diversity of our student population. The nature of the workshop is discussion-based with plenty of opportunities for faculty to engage in deeper conversations with colleagues to examine topics including, but not limited to, identity and culture, social and institutional barriers, transparent assignments, and discussion facilitation.

As a co-facilitator of this workshop, I have noticed that our role involves more than just ID services; we have the responsibility to support faculty as they adopt and apply inclusive teaching practices. 

Co-facilitating the ITO Workshop

My interest in inclusive learning design and teaching is rooted in my personal and academic backgrounds. Coming from a diverse cultural and linguistic background (Ecuador) and through my academic experiences, I have realized that the instructor has a critical role in making students feel welcome, part of the class community, and above all seen, heard, and valued for who they are and what they bring into the learning spaces. However, I see the role of an ID as crucial in supporting the faculty’s instructional choices and facilitation strategies to ensure an inclusive learning space is created and sustained. 

My role in ITO is to co-facilitate the weekly activities, lead discussion groups, promote dialogue on inclusive strategies, and guide faculty in developing their inclusive teaching action plan. In co-facilitating this workshop, I recognize the need as an ID to be prepared, gather resources, contribute to the conversions, and even challenge some of the instructor’s perspectives, all with the goal to critically look at diversity and inclusion in its multiple aspects. Particularly for me, co-facilitating the workshop has been challenging yet rewarding. It requires me, among other things, to be more cognizant of the culture and nature of the U.S higher education system, aware of my own identity and its potential influence on my approach in the workshop, and my level of confidence in addressing sensitive topics.

Begin with Design

Gears, notes, stats
Design

As IDs, we collaborate with instructors in several ways. We provide ongoing instructional support to develop new online/blended courses or improve existing courses. We also discuss with faculty the challenges of the course and identify strategies to make the learning experience more engaging, relevant, meaningful and satisfying for students. At the same time, we help faculty identify opportunities to address diversity, equity, and inclusion concerns in the course. 

In preparing to support inclusive teaching practices, we begin at the design stage. For example, we can ask questions such as: 

  • What kind of content would need to be made more accessible (e.g., adding captions/subtitles to videos, describing images more explicitly, use of color). How UDL guidelines can be implemented?
  • What other relevant information/perspective is important to consider to achieve the learning outcomes?
  • How can the course activities promote students as contributors to the course?
  • Would the learning outcomes prepare students to interact and work with people from diverse backgrounds?
  • How do you envision DEI in the design of the course?
  • What resources can we include in the course to support students?

Then, we move to the facilitating stage. However, our role is not to tell faculty how to teach; instead, we help faculty think through inclusive actions that they can consider while teaching their courses. For example, when instructors create introduction forums, we can ask them about their approach to connecting with students, their level of comfort in sharing personal information, and ways to respond to students’ posts in order to make the connections more visible. Oftentimes instructors may not know how or when to establish connections with students beyond the introductions. At this point, we can suggest to faculty that sharing some personal experiences with students when discussing course content or when providing feedback in assignments is another strategy. Instructors don’t have to share many personal aspects upfront; as they teach their course, they can identify areas where it is pertinent to do so. These opportunities would make students notice the insttructors’ intention and action to building community. 

Another strategy to bring into the conversation about inclusive practices is the plan for supporting struggling students. For example, if instructors are concerned about students’ not completing assignments on time or being inactive in the course, they can reach out to these students through email, learning management system internal messages. Instructors can offer ways to support these students by considering flexibility in their assignment submission, providing additional resources, or directing students to student support services. 

It may seem that the preceding ideas relate more to the design stage than the actual facilitation. However, planning these strategies can happen during the design as faculty prepare for teaching in inclusive ways.

Examine Inclusive Teaching

To some extent, IDs also help with planning the facilitation of the course. Some considerations to support the facilitation stage relate to an examination of inclusive practices, social identities, structural barriers, self-awareness, and building connections. In assisting faculty with inclusive teaching approaches, IDs are challenged to see broader and detailed aspects of the learning experience. For one, it is critical for a truly inclusive course that the concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are created by design. This means that we should not take these concepts as checklists that need to be checked off, plug-ins to be included, or band-aids to “cover” minor or temporary issues. We need to be clear on the definitions first to help instructors address them well in the design to be effective in the facilitation stage. An analogy to what DEI means is that of a dance where everyone is invited, contributes to the music, and has the opportunity to dance. In doing so, we need to examine inclusive teaching at deeper levels, with an understanding that inclusive teaching builds upon inclusive design.

A conversation with instructors about inclusive teaching practices can include the following aspects:

  • Forward-thinking: ask faculty about their teaching experience and what issues they faced that may need to be addressed during the design or facilitation of the course (e.g., flexibility in assignments, late work guidelines, assignment format).
  • Student-support resources: help faculty identify strategies or resources where they can reach out in case of need while taking the course (e.g., support coach, writing center, food and meant health services)
  • Sustaining instructor’s presence: help instructors with ideas about how they will keep their presence and connect with students throughout the course (e.g., discussion boards with personal/family photos, professional academic work, fun things). 
  • Assignment feedback: provide guidelines to instructors about leveraging technology to provide feedback.
  • Curate resources to support the design choices and to provide examples.  
  • Raciolinguistics-awarenes: help faculty identify and be cognizant of the use of language and cultural references that can promote or hinder developing community with students. 

We can also challenge preconceived perspectives on teaching and learning and promote inclusive teaching by engaging faculty in thinking about:

  • Whose voices are brought in the materials? 
  • How would students bring their knowledge, experiences, and contributions? 
  • How would the learning activities impact students’ learning in the class and their life outside the class? 
  • What is the language used in instructions, is it punitive or supportive? 
  • Who do the images in the course represent?
  • What is the language tone used to describe the course content?
  • Are the activities and assessments developed with a student deficit perspective?

Although it is the instructor’s decision to consider the diversification of their curricula, designers have the opportunity to advocate for students to see themselves represented in the course materials, especially those within minority groups.

Connections among people
Identity and community

I acknowledge that engaging in conversations with instructors about inclusive teaching is not an activity that happens easily. IDs should examine their own identities and the role these play in how they approach the design project and the working relationship with faculty. For instance, we could start by taking a step back and asking ourselves what social identities we hold and how these have shaped (or not) our experiences in life and work. In facilitating the ITO workshop, I have found myself constantly navigating through the intersection of these identities because these are complex, and at times, put me in vulnerable positions when working with faculty (e.g., language, gender, age, ethnicity). At the same time, these identities can also help us guide instructors about the best ways to provide support systems for all students. We can help instructors be more aware that students hold social identities too and may face micro- and macro-structural barriers that can impact their online presence and interaction. One aspect that I have encountered with many instructors is that they believe that once their online/hybrid course is developed, they can’t make changes. Here is where the question “can we have a conversation and a plan to support these students?” is critical to help faculty know that if needed, they can make adjustments to their instructional decisions. For example, instructors can consider flexibility and offer students some leeway to complete assignments at a later time.  

Further, I am aware that we don’t work in silos. For instance, at OSU Ecampus, the ID team is growing to incorporate more colleagues from different experiences and backgrounds. In providing support to faculty, it is important to engage with and rely on our colleagues (internal or external) for insights, practices, and resources to respond better to the demands of a course design, especially if there is interest in addressing inclusive excellence. In doing so, we reach out, we connect, we expand our ID toolkits to learn how best to provide ongoing instructional design support. Our course design enterprise becomes stronger when “we learn to professionally grow and design together” in a systematic way that allows us expand our skills and experiences; raise from our failures and cement our successes. 

We know that the instructional design field connects with many other disciplines and as such, we should observe and learn from other disciplines to support the work we do. Several instructors may have different worldviews and experiences about teaching and learning in their disciplines (e.g., STEM) and may be reluctant to consider alternative means of assessments. It may be worth talking with faculty about their guidelines and expectations for discussions and assignments as students from diverse cultural backgrounds may have different experiences that value more cosmovisions than traditional western perspectives. It is worth exploring with instructors how they would approach or address issues related to supporting these students during the course.   

Debrief for Reflection

Paper notes about creativity and reflection
Debrief

A practice that has been beneficial when facilitating the ITO workshop is holding debriefing sessions with the lead workshop facilitator. These sessions help us be on track, talk about any challenging or surprising situations, determine our plan of action for subsequent weeks, and observe the evolution of instructors’ ideas and perspectives on inclusive teaching. In a way, these debriefs promote self-reflection and forward-thinking. While it is not a common practice for many, IDs perhaps can have a midterm check-in with faculty to let them know that we are “with them” supporting their online/hybrid teaching. In addition, it can be beneficial to conduct debriefs after the instructor teaches the course to better understand their design and facilitation experience. Most importantly, it can be beneficial to identify what inclusive teaching practices worked well, how students responded to the inclusive strategies, and what areas need further development. IDs can document these experiences and gather data more intentionally to further enhance efforts for inclusive teaching.    

As a final comment, I would say that the ID role is multifaceted. We not only provide ongoing instructional and technological support but we also promote a student-centered experience where the needs and voices of all our students are considered throughout the design and facilitation of the educational experience. And we can do that by helping raise awareness of the layers of opportunities and barriers that many students face. We share the responsibility of inclusive teaching. 

References

  • American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Inclusive Language Guidelines. https://www.apa.org/about/apa/equity-diversity-inclusion/language-guidelines
  • Chatterjee, R., Juvale, D., & Jaramillo N. (2018). Experiences of Online Instructors through Debriefs: A Multi-Case Study. In AECT Proceedings.
  • Ecampus. (n.d). Mision, Vision and Values. [Website] 
  • Ecampus. (n.d). Online Teaching Workshops and Events. [Website] 
  • Ecampus. (n.d.). Innovate & Integrate: Plan for Inclusive Excellence. [Website]
  • Fiock, H., & Garcia, H. (2019). How to give your students better feedback with technology. [Advice guide]. 
  • CAST. (n.d.) UDL Guidelines. [Website] Robinson, M. (April 9, 2020). Approaches to Instructor Introductions. [Blog]. 
  • The University of Michigan. (n.d.). Defining DEI. [Website] 

Traditional learning materials such as textbooks can limit access to innovative teaching and learning practices. With Open Educational Resources (OERs), teachers and students are freed from the constraints of these materials and are empowered to adapt, use, and share learning materials created by others. This is a series of two blogs that will explore the importance of OERs and the resources needed for creating our own open resources for language learning?.  

First, let’s take a brief look at what makes OERs appealing, yet challenging to adapt and create in language education.

OER is sharing
Open educational resources. Source: Giulia Forsythe on Flickr, Public domain CC0 1.0

A Brief Overview

Open Educational Resources (OERs) are a key component of an approach to learning known as Open Pedagogy, which aims to leverage the use of shared resources to improve educational outcomes. Simply put, OERs include “any educational resources (including curriculum maps, course materials, textbooks, streaming videos, multimedia applications, podcasts, and any other materials that have been designed for use in teaching and learning) that are openly available for use by educators and students, without an accompanying need to pay royalties or license fees” (Butcher, 2015, p.5). OERs are usually shared under a Creative Commons license which allows users to revise, remix, retain, reuse and redistribute these materials without incurring any copyright infringement (The 5R activities).

“Going open is more a philosophy than a skill. But, obviously, it takes a handful of skills to be able to apply this philosophy in the classroom”

Małgorzata Kurek Anna Skowron

Language instructors and researchers have recognized the potentials that OERs bring to the language classroom. We call these potentials the ecology of OERs for the language classroom—the complex connections and relations that exist in the process of teaching and learning another language and its cultural foundations. In this ecology, we find benefits including adapting authentic materials, merging literacy and culture, and fostering multiliteracies (e.g., digital, information). Yet instructors and researchers also acknowledge the barriers to widely adopting open resources. 

Opportunities

OERs can engender creative and innovative practices for making language teaching and learning more meaningful, enjoyable, authentic, and democratic. Open resources can be game-changers that reshape the classroom ecology and its dynamics—fostering a hub for new social learning. These resources can challenge the social norms and behaviors expected in the language classroom, making instructors and students collaborators. Both students and instructors can become active producers of content, transforming the language class into more democratic and participatory. A participatory approach to making students content creators can promote opportunities for students to be exposed to authentic uses of the language and, thus, increase their motivation to learn and use the language in more meaningful and relatable ways (Blyth & Thoms, 2021).

OERs create opportunities for adapting and repurposing content to fit particular contexts and uses, levels of skills, student characteristics, instructors’ competencies, and available technologies. Both students and instructors can engage in higher-order cognitive processes as they retain, revise, remix, reuse, redistribute, and evaluate copyrightable works. OERs often come in different formats such as videos, interactive content, gamified practices, animated presentations, audio effects, etc. making the content and learning experience more engaging as well as connected to students’ language learning interests and needs. In addition, OERs are easily adapted, foster language and literacy skills for students, and are beneficial for the professional development of instructors. OERs can promote the development of digital multiliteracies for instructors (Mitsikopoulou, 2019), who could eventually integrate multiliteracies into their teaching practices organically. 

Commercial textbooks can become outdated quickly, and updating them can take a long time. In addition, instructors might find more challenges adapting or reusing these textbooks due to copyright laws. The open nature of OERs offers instructors the opportunity to adapt multiple resources to innovate their teaching practices and expose students to more realistic content that is current and relevant. Even further, using OERs in the language classroom may contribute to going beyond the goal of language education—from a communicative perspective where learners are expected to develop the language skills to communicate with other speakers of the target language to a learning experience that fosters literacy (Thoms & Thoms, 2014).

In broadening language teaching goals, instructors can become content-generators and create their own OERs. Instructor-generated OERs afford the opportunity for instructors to rethink their pedagogical content and practices in a way that can broaden their understanding and perspectives of the world. Instructors can integrate more content from the language and culture of diverse communities around the globe, decentering the language usage of a particular dominant group within the community of speakers. For instance, many Spanish textbooks in the U.S. focus on the Spanish language and culture from Spain, failing to embrace the multifaceted nature, complexity, and nuances of the language and culture in the other 20 Spanish-speaking countries in the world. 

Challenges

While interest in and implementation of OERs has grown across disciplines since the early days of the open education movement, adoption of these resources among foreign language educators has been slower and continues to present a number of challenges that may limit the efforts to integrate them into some educational contexts. Persisting barriers may include reluctance to reuse material created by others and share resources more broadly (Rolfe, 2012; Weller, 2011); lack of guidelines on the use and evaluation of OERs for quality and accuracy of the content (Adams et al., 2013); technical difficulties in access, development, and delivery of content; need for a sustainable team for development and authoring; and compliance with accessibility standards (Baker, 2012). It is notable that many of the challenges identified here represent a historical perspective of the OER movement. However, these potential obstacles, along with “a lack of research which investigates the benefits and challenges of FL learning and teaching in open environments” (Blyth and Thoms, 2021), continue to hinder the widespread use and creation of open resources among foreign language educators.

Supporting Efforts to Incorporate OERs in the Language Teaching and Learning

The benefits of OERs across disciplines has been by now well-documented. Language programs and educators weighing the barriers to creating OERs should not be discouraged. To the contrary, it is critical to support efforts to democratize education through the use of OERs and open education initiatives. These efforts include: (1) providing research-based and empirical evidence of the benefits and impact on language education, (2) grounding the development of OERs on theoretical and practical frameworks to ensure quality of learning experiences, (3) training users and developers of OERs on how to find, adopt, adapt, evaluate and create open resources, (4) supporting the use of technologies and Creative Commons licensing for OERs, and (5) creating clear guidelines for instructional practices (Zapata & Ribota, 2021). An important piece in adopting OERs and advocating for the open pedagogy movement is to support instructors who want to venture into creating their own OERs. How do we get started with our own OER project? What considerations are critical for this kind of project? What resources are needed and available? Who will be involved and how will their different areas of expertise be integrated? We believe it is necessary to discuss these questions (and possibly others). In Part 2 of this series, we outline a detailed process and structure for language programs to determine the appropriate scope and sequence within the larger curriculum, author rich thematic content, weave cultural and social justice topics into language skills content, promote multiliteracies, and produce media objects or search for existing media and images in the public domain.

References

Adams, A., Liyanagunawardena, T., Rassool, N., & Williams, S. (2013). Use of open educational resources in higher education. British Journal of Educational Technology, 44, 149– 150. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/bjet.12014 

Baker, J. (2012). Introduction to open educational resources. Connexions. http://cnx.org/content/col10413/1.3

Blyth, C. S., & Thoms, J. J. (Eds.). (2021). Open education and second language learning and teaching: The rise of a new knowledge ecology. Multilingual Matters. https://www.multilingual-matters.com/page/detail/?k=9781800411005

Butcher, N. (2015). A basic guide to open educational resources (OER). Commonwealth of Learning (COL).

Wiley, D. (n.d.). Defining the “Open” in Open Content and Open Educational Resources. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license 

Lesko, I. (2013). The use and production of OER and OCW in teaching in South African higher education institutions. Open Praxis, 5(2), 103-121. https://www.openpraxis.org/articles/abstract/10.5944/openpraxis.5.2.52/

Mitsikopoulou, B. (2019). Multimodal and digital literacies in the English classroom: Interactive textbooks open educational resources and a social platform. In N. Vasta., & A. Baldry. (Eds.). Multiliteracy Advances and Multimodal Challenges in ELT Environments, (pp. 98-110). Udine.

Rolfe, V. (2012). Open educational resources: Staff attitudes and awareness. Research in Learning Technology, 20, 1–13.https://doi.org/10.3402/rlt.v20i0.14395 

Thoms, J. J., & Thoms, B. L. (2014). Open educational resources in the United States: Insights from university foreign language directors. Systems. http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/issues/volume22/ej86/ej86a2/

Weller, M., De los Arcos, B., Farrow, R., Pitt, B., & McAndrew, P. (2015). The impact of OER on teaching and learning practice. Open Praxis, 7(4), 351-361.

Zapata, G., & Ribota. (2021). Open educational resources in heritage and L2 Spanish classrooms: Design, development and implementation. Open Education and Second, 25.

At a recent faculty professional development workshop series, I became aware of faculty’s concerns about addressing the learning needs of students from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Students with multilingual and multicultural identities are oftentimes perceived as deficient (Almon, 2014; Flores & Rosa, 2015) and might feel they hold an outsider status (Merryfield, 2000). In my personal experience navigating multiple identities that intersect culture and language, and in my work supporting faculty in their learning design and instructional decisions, I began examining ways in which blended and online learning spaces can offer more welcoming opportunities for students. One of these ways is using a cultural lens and mindset towards inclusive learning design. 

Culturally Responsive Approaches

There have been several culturally responsive approaches to teaching and learning. By and large these approaches advocate for the recognition of students’ cultural backgrounds as critical to their learning success (Gay, 2013; Ladson-Bilings, 1994). In fact, a culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP) aims to promote the integration of students’ culture to support their learning experiences. In blended and online learning, this pedagogy can create an environment that “acknowledges, celebrates, and builds upon the cultural capital that learners and teachers bring to the online classroom” (Woodley, Hernandez, Parra, & Nagash, 2017, p.1). 

For students whose first language is not English, we first should focus on their strengths and not their deficiencies. These students bring their cultural backgrounds, values, experiences, and language diversity with them to the online learning environment. It is important to recognize that culture is central to teaching and learning; therefore, advancing online and blended learning design should be grounded on dimensions for cultural sensitivity where students’ diverse identities, cultures, languages, and backgrounds are seen through an asset-based lens. This means, recognizing the value in the cultural backgrounds, experiences, and languages of students; and embracing these students’ traits as assets. This asset-base approach can be the first step in developing a mindset for designing and teaching in ways that promote social, academic, and emotional learning for these and ALL students. 

Culturally responsive approaches have been mapped out to the three principles of Universal Design for Learning to offer (1) multiple means of engagement, (2) multiple means of representation, and (3) multiple means of action and expression (UDL, n.d.). UDL and CRP can help instructors amplify the opportunities for students from different cultural backgrounds to demonstrate their knowledge when given strategies that incorporate multiple perspectives, experiences, connections to the real world, and choices (Bass & Lawrence-Riddell, 2020; Kieran & Anderson, 2018)  

The connection of UDL and CRP offers consideration to inform instructional design choices. Yet, these considerations appear to be adds-on to the design of the learning experience. How can we expand the UDL and CRP connection to embrace a mindset to move towards an inclusive learning design where the cultural and linguistic traits of students are seen from an asset-based perspective? A few dimensions from research and praxis would get us started to help achieve this goal.

Dimensions for Learning Design

The following dimensions for learning design, that expand the connections between UDL and CRP, should be considered whenever possible in the design of blended or online learning experiences. Following are the six dimensions.

Dimensions of Culturally Responsive Leraning Design
Dimensions for Culturally Responsive Learning Design

  1. Instructor’s reflection
  2. Visual design
  3. Linguistic domain
  4. Content
  5. Interaction
  6. Technology

Identity and Experience

Instructor identity and experience relates to the practice reflection –inner analysis to reveal assumptions about teaching and learning (Jaramillo Cherrez & Jin, 2020). Through these reflections, instructors can identify ways to humanize the learning experience. Instructional designers (IDs) can help instructors engage in a (self) dialogue to explore how the instructor’s identity informs or impacts their teaching and instructional decisions, how they respond to students’ cultural differences and embrace them as strengths, and how instructors could also learn from students.

Design 

The visual design of the course and learning materials can have a profound impact on students’ learning experience (Hedberg & Brown, 2002). For students whose first language is other than English in particular, it is important to be aware that these students may come from different cultures and social groups, and thus, visual representations may have positive or negative consequences to their success in the course. Visuals should be carefully chosen because the variety of images, colors, and symbols may affect the message students receive in the class. When using images from pop culture, it is helpful to add context to give more clarity to the instructional purpose. The visual design also relates to the readability of the content and how it is presented and structured. Asking a colleague or friend to read the instructions and descriptions of assignments can help clarify expectations and requirements for students. Bear in mind that what is clear to one is not always clear to others, especially when using complex sentences and terminology of a discipline. 

Linguistic Variability

Many students might have a first language different from English. Also, keep in mind that different cultures may have different ways of writing, usually influenced by rhetorical and social contexts (Almuhailib, 2019). There may also be linguistic and cognitive differences in the way that students interpret the information given to them. For some cultures, direct descriptions are fine, whereas for others the context is important before addressing a specific perspective. Some cultures may characterize themselves for being more individualistic and others more holistic, and students, including those whose first language is other than English, can find themselves moving along that continuum. In designing culturally responsive blended or online courses, language matters because of the transactional distance characteristic of asynchronous spaces. Many students may already be pressured to demonstrate “good”, “academic”, “professional” English. One way to be aware of linguistic diversity is to be more explicit with instructions. For example, indicate clearly the use of naming conventions, abbreviations, acronyms, and descriptors in activities and assignments.     

Content

The fourth consideration is content. The main suggestion is to try to diversify the curriculum with resources from around the world (e.g., content from scholars from diverse cultures and linguistic backgrounds). Allow students to see themselves represented in the materials. Create activities and assignments that help students explore the concepts in connection to their own backgrounds and communities(e.g., linguistic, cultural) and experiences, and that allow students to move from low to high cognitive tasks (e.g., staged projects). Yet, diversifying the curriculum goes far from bringing into the course content perspectives that are commonly ignored. It involves explicit acknowledgement of the value of the different perspectives and modes of knowledge. 

Interaction

Interaction also can benefit from a culturally responsive mindset in that instructors can vary the modes of interaction by using audio/video communication(e.g., assignment feedback, DB, announcements). It is also important to guide and scaffold group activities with resources such as guidelines, group contracts, teamwork guidelines, group rapport activities, conflict resolution resources). Particularly for teamwork, instructors can build group activities early in the course to promote collaborative learning. For online discussions, instructors could allow students to select the tools that they feel more comfortable with using, bearing in mind that many students from different cultural backgrounds might not be familiar or have experience participating in discussion activities. Another suggestion is to promote student-led discussions to help students move from the individual task to the group task. This will allow to vary the cognitive demands that can foster meaningful knowledge construction and organization while also addressing different audiences, styles of writing and analysis, and communication modes. 

Technology

It is important to recognize that technology is not neutral. Clearly, it is important to select tools and evaluate them for intended and unintended consequences for students, such as the cost, the technical support, the pedagogical affordances, and the availability in other geographic areas. It will be helpful to consider the different levels of technology skills that students may have and plan on developing guidelines and technical resources (e.g., links to providers, manuals, accessibility and privacy policies) that can help students. Additionally, in considering digital tools it is important to review whether the affordances the tools offer are available to all students, in the different browsers and devices (e.g., tablets, smart phones, browsers). In using digital tools, careful attention should be given to the kinds of data that the tools require students and instructors to share. It is important to read carefully the terms of use, data privacy, and the information that is being collected as a way to understand how the users can trust the tools and their procedures for sharing or not with others the data collected. 

These dimensions underscore the need to approach learning design with a mindset that not only acknowledges student multilingual and multicultural identities, but also catalyzes these identities to help students be valued and successful. I consider these dimensions in my instructional design work, and I would like to invite you to consider them next time you design an online or blended learning experience. 

Sources  

Almon, C. (2015). College persistence and engagement in light of a mature English language learner (ELL) student’s voice. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 39(5), 461-472.

Almuhailib, B. (2019). Analyzing Cross-Cultural Writing Differences using Contrastive Rhetoric: A Critical Review. Advances in Language and Literary Studies, 10(2), 102-106.

Bass, G., & Lawrence-Riddell, M. (2020). Culturally Responsive Teaching and UDL. Faculty Focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/equality-inclusion-and-diversity/culturally-responsive-teaching-and-udl/

Dougherty, E. (2012). Assignments matter: Making the connections that help students meet standards. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Kieran, L., & Anderson, C. (2019). Connecting universal design for learning with culturally responsive teaching. Education and Urban Society, 51(9), 1202-1216.

Gay, G. (2013). Teaching to and through cultural diversity. Curriculum Inquiry, 43(1), 48-70.

Hedberg, J. G., & Brown, I. (2002). Understanding cross-cultural meaning through visual media. Educational Media International, 39(1), 23-30.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). What we can learn from multicultural education research. Educational Leadership, 51(8), 22-26.

Merryfield, M. M. (2000). Why aren’t teachers being prepared to teach for diversity, equity, and global interconnectedness? A study of lived experiences in the making of multicultural and global educators. Teaching and Teacher Education, 16(4), 429-443.

Flores, N., & Rosa, J. (2015). Undoing appropriateness: Raciolinguistic ideologies and language diversity in education. Harvard Educational Review, 85(2), 149-171.

Universal Design for Learning (n.d.). The UDL Guidelines [Website]. https://udlguidelines.cast.org/

Woodley, X., Hernandez, C., Parra, J., & Negash, B. (2017). Celebrating difference: Best practices in culturally responsive teaching online. TechTrends, 61(5), 470-478.

 

 

Assignments are an integral component of the educational experience to guide the teaching and learning processes. In fact, Dougherty (2012) contends that assignments are instructional events that aim to teach for learning, that is “recipes for instructional events— lessons in the best sense— and their main function is to create a context for teaching new content and skills and practicing learned ones.” (p. 23). Assignments as instructional plans provide students with the opportunities to apply concepts they studied in the class. Further, through assignments, students can demonstrate the skills developed in a unit of content in more concrete ways and aligned to the goals of the course.

In my consultations with instructors I often hear them raise concerns about course assignments. These concerns range from making assignments more practical and relevant, clarifying the purpose and instructions, integrating problem-solving and critical thinking, to including authentic and experiential tasks. In addition, I hear instructors mention that some assignments that students submit are incomplete, offer superficial and unsubstantiated arguments (i.e., written reports), focus on tangential ideas, have been googled, reflect bias, and are simple opinions using non-credible sources. These concerns are very valid and it is important to examine the assignments deeper. What I have noticed is that some assignment descriptions lack a purpose and clarity. In a word, assignments need to be transparent

Determining the structure of an assignment bears the questions of how can instructors make the assignments learning events that are clear and relevant enough for students? how can students not only demonstrate what they learn, but also use the assignments as catalysts for further intellectual and academic challenges? Let’s take a closer look at transparency.

Transparency

The first time I heard about transparency in assignment design was at the Wakonse Teaching and Learning conference a few years go. Several sessions and small group activities at the conference showed us that the assignments need to have a clear structure, detailed instructions, and a grading criteria. Obviously! I said to myself at the time. However, the reality is that assignments tend to be reduced to a list of instructions, tasks that students need to complete and submit for a grade. In some cases these instructions vaguely indicate the grading criteria in terms of the format and style (i.e., number of words, font size, spacing). 

The underlying framework for transparent assignments is a structure that clearly describes the purpose of the assignment, the instructions or tasks, and the grading criteria (Dougherty, 2012; Winkelmes, 2013; Winkelmes, Bernacki, Butler, Zochowski, Golanics, & Weavil, 2016). Winkelmess and colleagues (2016) draw from three theoretical bases to support the three-stage framework: metacognition, agency, and performance monitoring. Contrastively, Dougherty (2012) draws from instructional strategies informed by backward design and alignment to outcomes to set the assignment structure. In this framework, instructors deliberately design the assignment for high quality learning experience and relevance to students. In their research study, Winkelmess and colleagues (2016) found that students who received transparent assignments showed evidence of greater learning in three areas related to student success: academic confidence, sense of belonging, and mastery of skills. 

Designing transparent assignments involve creating a clear and coherent architecture. Through this structure students can think deeper about the concepts studied, focus their attention on particular topics, make connections to real-world contexts, and see the relevance for their future lives and goals (Dougherty, 2012). In doing so, instructors need to create a harmonious structure that clearly explains why students need to do an assignment, what is the assignment about, how to do the assignment, and how they will be graded on it.

When I presented this architecture to one instructor, he replied “you are asking me to tell students the answer! Why would I need to hand-hold students in this way when I want them to be problem-solvers and critical thinkers?” While this comment is valid, and also paralyzed me for a few seconds, I engaged the instructor in discussing what the assignments need to be clear. For instance, we talked about how students will know what to do, why students should care about completing the assignment (besides the grade), and how students will meet the expectations if they don’t know the purpose and the way to complete it. In addition, I said “you want students to be problem-solvers of the content and topics, not problem-solvers of the assignment design.”

A transparent assignment should have the following three basic components: purpose, task, and grading criteria.

Purpose

The starting point in an assignment is to be able to answer the question of why? Why will students learn from this assignment? Why will students need to complete this assignment? Why is this assignment important in students’ learning? Stating the purpose of the assignment serves a two-fold objective. First, it gives the instructor a frame of reference for creating an activity that is relevant and meaningful to students, and that connects to the learning outcomes. Second, the purpose of the assignment gives students a focus and a sense of direction. 

Winkelmes (2013) suggests establishing the purpose in terms of the skills students will practice and the knowledge they will gain. In addition, the purpose can also be determined by contextualizing the learning outcomes in practical ways within the activity.  

Task

You can call it tasks, details, instructions, steps, or other. In this structure, the instructor describes what students need to do, what resources they can use, and the expectations of the assignments. Having a clear set of instructions makes the assignment more rigorous and helps students produce more high-quality work.

Grading Criteria

Providing the criteria of how the assignment will be graded will also give students a sense of clarity and direction. Clear expectations through a rubric or grading guidelines helps students adhere to the outcomes of the assignment. Winkelmes (2013) suggests including several examples of real-world problems so students can see how the application of knowledge and skills will look like.

Remarks

A transparent assignment should have a well-structured framework or an architecture of steps. Transparency in assignments is a mindset, a way of thinking, the vision that students are given clear and relevant learning events that allow them to demonstrate their learning, and foster their engagement. Transparent assignments can be designed as stand-alone pieces or as a multi-stage assignment. Multi-stage assignments can build on cognitive complexity, include multiple skills, and extend learning to outside the class. In our next blog, I will look at how to design multi-stage assignments. 

Sources

Dougherty, E. (2012). Assignments matter: Making the connections that help students meet standards. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Winkelmes, M. 2013. “Transparency in Learning and Teaching: Faculty and Students Benefit Directly from a Shared Focus on Learning and Teaching Processes.” NEA Higher Education Advocate, 30(1), 6-9.

Winkelmes, M. A., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J., & Weavil, K. H. (2016). A teaching intervention that increases underserved college students’ success. Peer Review, 18(1/2), 31-36.

Beyond intentions: Contextualizing learning outcomes

“After completion of this module, you will be able to…” Does this sound familiar? Have you created statements like this before? If so, it is possible that you have come across Bloom’s taxonomy or the taxonomy for teaching, learning, and assessments (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001). The taxonomy is a guide to identify the specific knowledge that students are expected to acquire and demonstrate at the end of an educational activity (i.e., a course, module, lesson). However, connecting the outcomes to the activities and assessments can be challenging. Before we look into a guide and examples of alignment, let’s take a brief refresher at outcomes.

Learning Outcomes Explained

Many of us have heard of several terms to refer to outcomes such as objectives, intended results, aims, and goals. I will use the term outcomes in this blog to avoid any confusion. Overall, educational outcomes are statements of what learners should achieve through their engagement in educational activities and processes that allow them to acquire or construct knowledge (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001; Bloom, Engelhart, Furst, Hill, & Krathwohl, 1956). As disciplines differ, so do their outcomes. Instructors can make use of the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001) to explicitly focus on the essential cognitive process and the knowledge required in each discipline. With the learning outcomes clearly stated, students know what is important to learn in a specific course or module within a timeframe. In addition, instructors can plan the curriculum and instruction more appropriately. 

Oftentimes, learning outcomes are confused with tasks. In other words, the means become the ends. In brief, outcomes refer to measurable intended results in the form of skills, knowledge, content that students are expected to demonstrate acquisition of. Whereas, tasks refer to class work that involves the students in completing, interacting, or producing something to achieve the outcomes. Anderson and Krathwohl proposed a formulaic phrase (explicit or implicit: [Verb phrase + verb phrase]) to convey the intention of a learning outcome and differentiate them from means:

“At the end of this blog post, you should be able to use the concept of alignment to contextualize learning outcomes.”

Learning Outcomes Alignment

The concept of “alignment” refers to connecting the outcomes to the learning activities and assessments. Therefore, alignment is an essential characteristic of high-quality online courses. Alignment ensures all course components work together and are mutually reinforced so that learners are able to accomplish the learning outcomes (Quality Matters Rubric, 2018). See the blog post Alignment by Karen Watte, out OSU Ecampus Director of Course Development and Training for more details.

Learning Outcomes in Action

In my meetings with instructors and faculty workshops, I often hear common concerns about student comments related to the lack of clarity in the activities and assignments. Instructors have realized that they need to make the course components more transparent, connected, or “aligned” to the learning outcomes. While the connection, or alignment, to learning outcomes is a fundamental piece to ensuring quality of the learning experience, this connection should be clearer. In addition, the visibility of learning outcomes can help learners be more intentional in their engagement and ways to integrate their knowledge in the course activities and personal life endeavors (LEAP National Leadership Council, 2007).

Oftentimes the learning outcomes are part of the course activities without making any connection (implicit or explicit) to the course activities. Making the learning outcomes more transparent can help students see why they need to complete the variety of course activities, which affects their motivation. Most importantly the learning outcomes play an anchor role that redefines the activities to engage learners in constructing meaning (Biggs, 2003). For example, Biggs (2003) posits that the learning outcomes refer to “sought-for qualities of performance, and it is these that need to be stated clearly” (p.3) throughout the course components. Above all, we should avoid mere completion of tasks in what Mintz (2020) refers to as “mechanical learning experience” when the task-based approach asks students to linearly complete tasks. In fact, understanding the purpose for learning helps motivate students to be more engaged and invested in the course. 

Rather than offering a set of formulaic steps to follow, I invite you to consider a practical strategy and examples as a guide to see the learning outcomes in action. Further, in this strategy learning outcomes are the compass to create learning activities and assessments where students see how the work they do matters beyond the grade it represents. Whether the learning activities you design require students to develop theoretical understandings or apply practical skills, the outcomes will help students see the meaning behind the activities.

Further, the alignment will help students understand the kinds of knowledge and processes involved that in many cases —as the instructors who have shared their concerns with me often note— are not sufficiently transparent. In fact, we learn best when we understand the reason for learning something new. Research supports this and our students understand this too. In what follows is the guide that suggests examining the learning outcomes more closely from the two-dimension approach proposed in the taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001). This two dimensions are: 

  • Knowledge dimension: factual, conceptual, procedural, metacognitive 
  • Cognitive processes (measurable and observable actions): remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating.

By using this two-dimension approach, we can thread the learning outcomes in the purpose and/or instructions of the learning activities and assessments. If we understand that purpose, according to Merriam Webster dictionary, is “something set up as an object or end to be attained’, we can contextualize the outcomes in this “something”. Let’s take a look at the following examples that illustrate how instructors took the learning outcomes to action during the course design process.

Example 1 (Responsible Conduct of Research – GRAD 520)

In this example from a graduate-level class we can see the learning outcomes threaded from within the purpose statement of the Course Reflection Assignment to the instructions.  

Course learning outcomes:

  1. Analyze and defend positions related to responsible conduct of research.
  2. Apply a process for ethical decision-making and apply it to research situations where there are conflicting ethical values
  3. Identify and analyze the moral values and ethical principles, relevant facts, and affected stakeholders in scholarly research

Diagram that illustrates learning outcomes in the context of an assignment for course reflection that includes factual, procedural and metacognitive knowledge.
Learning outcomes treaded in the purpose and instructions

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Example 2 (Business Spanish – SPAN 319)

This example from an undergraduate-level language class shows how both module outcomes become the essential part of the purpose statement in a discussion board.

Learning outcomes module 2 (translated):

  1. Describe the concept of enterprise and its components to a Spanish speaking audience
  2. Create dissemination material that facilitate promote an entrepreneurial project

Diagram illustrating how both learning outcomes were included in the purpose statement of a discussion board
Learning outcomes as essential part of the purpose statement

 

 

 

 

 

Example 3 (Human Development and Family Studies – HDFS 460)

This example from this undergraduate-level class shows the outcomes from multiple weeks aligned to a multi-stage assignment overview.

Weekly learning outcomes (multiple outcomes):

  1. Critically analyze who shapes policy (e.g. Who is excluded and why?) (week 3)
  2. Analyze different ways that families are marginalized in social policy (week 4)
  3. Compare differences in family policies in the US and other countries based on how they are formed through government and other social programs (week 5)
  4. Identify cultural, market economy, and social safety net factors that influence what families look like over time (week 6)

Diagram illustrating how multiple-week learning outcomes were threaded in the overview of a multi-stage assignment where factual and conceptual knowledge was essential
Multiple learning outcomes threaded in a multi-staged assignment overview

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By contextualizing the outcomes we can help students understand better why they do what they do. Finally, it is worth mentioning that the learning outcomes guide the design of the course activities, while they also leave room for creativity and unintended learning to occur (Biggs & Tang, 2011). 

Special thanks to Sandi Phibbs, Ph.D., instructor of GRAD 520; Emily Malewitz-Davis, instructor of SPAN 319, and David Rothwell, Ph.D., and Kylee Probert, instructors of HDFS 460 who graciously agreed to share the examples from their online courses.  

References

Biggs, J. (2003). Aligning teaching for constructing learning. Higher Education Academy, 1(4).

Biggs, J., and Tang. C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university: What the student does. Berkshire, UK: McGraw-Hill Education.

Krathwohl, D. R., & Anderson, L. W. (2009). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. Longman.

National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise. (2007). College learning for the new global century. A Report from the National Leadership Council for the Lbetal Education and America’s Promise. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities

Mintz, S (February 13, 2020). Online Course Design [Webpost]. 

Quality Matters. (2018). Course Design Rubric Standards for Higher Ed Sixth Edition. Retrieved from https://www.qualitymatters.org/qa-resources/rubric-standards/higher-ed-rubric, March 2020

Roach, A. T., Elliot, S. N., & Webb, N. L. (2005). Alignment of an alternate assessment with state academic standards: Evidence for the content validity of the Wisconsin alternate assessment. The Journal of Special education, 38(4), 218-231.