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Some Learning Required

By Guest Writer: Taimi Olsen

What can you do to make a difference in your students’ learning?

LearningYou might think, “I need to redesign the course, change assignments, or create a project.” What if making a difference meant that you adopted one easy practice during the semester?

How can this be, you ask?

The “Transparency in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education project, lead by Mary-Ann Wilkemes, suggests that it is as easy as choosing one simple teaching practice to make a difference.  Faculty can sign up for free, choose a practice, and then give students a short survey at the end of the semester.  In return, the faculty member gets a report on their students’ responses in comparison to student learning across the project.

The list of practices is generated and tested by volunteer faculty; the project has been running since 2010 and involving over 25000 students, with statistically significant results.

The list provides two or three practices each for the Humanities, Social Sciences, and STEM fields.  They all involve 1. communication between teachers and students and 2. teachers encouraging metacognition (thinking about learning) by students.  These two aspects are highly important for student learning, as we know from research.  The revised NSSE (National Survey of Student Engagement) identifies ‘effective teaching practices’ and asks students, for instance, how often has your instructor explained course goals and requirements?  According to Blaich and Wise (2008) as cited in the 2013 NSSE:

Faculty who teach their courses with clarity and organization, and provide prompt and formative feedback have a positive impact on the learning and development of their students

According to the report, 85% of seniors in arts and humanities said their instructors clearly explained course goals and requirements, as opposed to 77% in engineering.   What do these teaching practices look like and are they really simple? For example, you might choose “Discuss assignments’ learning goals and design rationale before students begin each assignment” and the website provides examples of how to do this.   For this teaching practice, there are a few simple actions for each class assignment:

  1. Tell students what skills they will practice with this assignment

    KTVee on Flickr, Creative Commons Licensing

    KTVee on Flickr, Creative Commons Licensing

  2. Define the learning that they will gain (in terms of skills and content) from the assignment
  3. Provide criteria for success with this assignment
  4. Provide successful examples, with annotations

Given this context, students will be more successful in their learning.  With this information, you require students to think first about the purpose of the assignment and to focus on the appropriate learning—and you provide students with a clear, high benchmark for success. Try it and tell us what you think!

Want your students to do more with thinking about their learning? Have them fill out and save this four-step questionnaire before starting an assignment:

Four Steps in Learning

Recommended by the International Association for Metacognition:

NSSE Annual Report. (2013). A Fresh Look at Student Engagement.  Page 18. Retrieved from:
Winkelmes, M. 2013. Transparency in Teaching: Faculty Share Data and Improve Students’ Learning. Liberal Education, 99 (2). Retrieved from:

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