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Structure and Transparency

High-structure and active learning

High-structure courses provide students with regular required practice opportunities, typically in the form of weekly before-class, in-class, and after-class exercises designed to help process course content and practice skills needed for final assessments. This approach ensures that all students–not only a savvy minority–engage in the guided practice they need to build skills and gain knowledge. Providing sufficient opportunities for practice might require rethinking how to best use in-and out-of-class time. Strategies for increasing practice opportunities include:

  • Moving some content delivery outside of class time (the flipped classroom model) to make room for in-class active learning
  • Requiring completion of preliminary tasks like problem sets or guided reading questions before coming to class
  • Dedicating more class time to complex problems and applications 
  • Requiring regular low-stakes assignments
  • Creating robust feedback loops where students respond to feedback to improve their work

Structuring active learning opportunities during class time can increase learning for all students–with outsized benefits for traditionally underrepresented and minoritized student groups. While the specific model will look different for every discipline and course, the governing idea is to make sure each student receives frequent opportunities for low-stakes practice paired with formative feedback, in order to make incremental, guided progress towards achieving course learning goals.

Inclusive assessment

To promote an inclusive, growth-oriented mindset, course assessment schemas should reward growth and encourage intellectual risk-taking. Frequent low-stakes formative assessments and robust feedback loops allow students to learn from prior mistakes. Even high-stakes assessments can be designed for learning and growth by adding scaffolding (smaller component assignments) or building in choice and flexibility (flexible points, dropping lowest grades, free passes, replacing old exam scores with new cumulative scores) to reward student progress. Grading on a curve can discourage collaboration and counter the message that all students have the opportunity to succeed if they put in the necessary efforts. Instead of comparing students to one another, we can compare each student to the proficiency standards articulated on the syllabus. For instructors interested in experimenting more extensively with assessment schemas, recent scholarship in teaching and learning offers several student-centered alternatives to traditional grading:

  • Specifications grading–evaluation based on competencies or “specifications” achieved, often involving student choice  
  • Ungrading–de-emphasizing grades and re-emphasizing learning, often involving extensive student reflection and self-assessment

Check out this related teaching tip on low-stakes assessments. [requires Sharepoint Login]

Transparent teaching and metacognition

Metacognition, or the awareness of one’s own cognitive processes, can be a powerful tool for supporting student learning and self-efficacy. Many students lack basic knowledge of how learning works, and have never been invited to reflect on what strategies and modalities work best for them. By sharing insights from the science of learning and making room for metacognitive reflection, we can not only help students gain effective study skills but also foster the self-awareness needed to become self-directed lifelong learners.

One reason students experience educational alienation is not understanding the “why” behind academic tasks. As a result, assignments can feel like busywork rather than meaningful learning opportunities. Teaching transparently by communicating our pedagogical design can go a long way towards countering this misperception. Creating a culture of transparency should start with syllabus language and continue throughout the course.

To help students better understand how they learn and more accurately assess their skill and knowledge level, instructors can:

  • Use frequent low-stakes assessments and formative feedback
  • Use short "minute papers" asking students to retrieve information, articulate "muddiest points," or define confusing concepts can help learners reflect on what they do and do not understand
  • Build in frequent reflection opportunities like weekly progress journals, cumulative concept maps, midterm/end of year reflections
  • Incorporate reflection into final assessment with exam wrappers and exam reflection prompts (“Which questions were easiest for me and why? What prepared me best to do well on those questions? Which questions were a struggle and why? What could I have done better to prepare for those?)
  • Encourage students to track their growth and identify their strengths and gaps

Check out this related teaching tip on student-centered exam enhancements. [requires Sharepoint Login]

Access and UDL

Students cannot learn if they are unable to access course content or instructions. We can improve access by using readable fonts and file formats, providing close captioning for videos, providing transcripts for audio material, supplementing oral instructions with visual prompts, and creating clear communication systems. A legible, transparent, predictable course structure reduces cognitive load for all students, making available for learning energy that would otherwise be used for negotiating course logistics. When appropriate, using Open Educational Resources (OERs) reduces socioeconomic barriers to access.

While traditional academic courses often require additional accommodations to meet specialized student needs, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) draws on the architectural principle of Universal Design to build courses for maximum access from the start, rather than placing the burden of seeking access on individual students. This approach offers a flexible framework within which every student can find the right balance of support and challenge. UDL in course design means providing learners with:

  • multiple means of representation (a diversity of pathways to acquiring knowledge/skills);
  • multiple means of expression (a diversity of choices in demonstrating what they have learned);
  • and multiple means of engagement (a diversity of options for boosting interest and motivation).

The UDL model makes learning more accessible to those in need of accommodations, but all students benefit from the increase in clarity, flexibility, and autonomy.

Check out these related teaching tips on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Open Educational Resources (OER). [requires Sharepoint Login] 

Next: Teaching the Whole Student