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The psychology of transparency, and what it means for learning

Posted in Course Redesign, First-year Learning Initiative, Higher Education, Ideas and Resources, Student Success, and Trends and Change

Have you heard of the transparency concept in teaching gateway courses? I hadn’t, until the last day of the latest John N. Gardner Institute event I went to, the Gateway Course Experience conference. Presented there in a featured session by Dr. Mary-Ann Winkelmes, the Transparency Project has to do with making relatively small changes to how assignments and activities are presented to students, emphasizing purpose and clarity so that it’s obvious to students exactly why and how they are supposed to do the things we ask them to do.

The concept also involves linking assignments to real-world problems and applications – food and environmental issues, for example – which ties in, broadly, to the “why” aspect of doing classwork. Winkelmes presented some impressive results associated with rewriting assignments around transparency, particularly with respect to the technique’s effectiveness for reducing achievement gaps among underrepresented students.

I’ve set a goal of learning more about the Transparency Project, especially with respect to how we might adapt it in some way within the First Year Learning Initiative at NAU. FYLI asks faculty to do a few similar kinds of things, such as share rubrics with students ahead of time and link coursework to real-world problems that students care about, and so transparency seems like a natural fit for expanding and enhancing the program. But what also sparked my curiosity has more to do with the psychological dynamics associated with transparency, or as students would more likely call it, “clarity” in our teaching.

What is it about clarity that makes such a difference?  There’s the obvious point that students get more out of a learning activity when the instructions are easier to follow, but given the Transparency Project’s dramatic impacts, I think it goes much deeper than that.

In my experience, clarity also tends to be a running theme in our student evaluation comments. Students pick up on that one word, or similar characteristics, over and over. And, perceived lack of clarity is something that really seems to bother them, detracting from everything else that instructor says and does.

Clarity’s importance also comes through from a surprising finding from the Transparency Project, that revising assignments in this way affects not just grades, but also feelings of belongingness. Belongingness, roughly defined as the sense that you fit in to a particular academic environment and can be successful there, is a big deal in student success research right now, predicting a number of important outcomes. This is especially true in the case of underrepresented students, further underscoring how important it is that all students feel connected and included within their academic experiences.

I was puzzled to hear that something so tied to social and emotional factors would be affected by seemingly technical aspects of how assignments are framed and explained, until I started to think about how clarity plays out in social inclusion and exclusion. Human social interactions, after all, are governed by rules and norms that are – sometimes by explicit design – clear to insiders, and murky to everyone else.

Clarity is a social issue because we use obfuscation to maintain social boundaries. Whether it’s jargon, or etiquette (which fork do you use, anyway?) unwritten rules serve to keep insiders in and outsiders out. Perhaps that is why unclear instructions, where the purpose and steps are implied but not stated, could read not just as an inconvenience, but a social signal that you don’t belong.

They also speak to empathy and perspective taking. Clarity comes when we can accurately predict how something will look, sound, and feel to someone else, someone who does not have our same level of experience and expertise. Clear instructions imply that we’ve thought in depth about the student perspective, which may in turn suggest that we care about the student experience in general and students as people.

Lastly, there is the perception of fairness, something that goes right to the core of our human psychology. Most of us have gone through that experience of doing badly on an assignment, then realizing later that we could have aced it if we had only had a few key pieces of information. This feels terribly unfair, since success hinges less on effort and quality of work than on the ability to navigate instructions, or even sheer luck in figuring them out. And unfairness, like exclusion, is acutely painful for almost everybody.

Inclusion, empathy and fair play: A lot is wrapped up in transparency. Looking at it psychologically has taught me a lot already, and I hope to learn a lot more about this powerful concept as time goes on.