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.