How can we both challenge and support students through our assignment design? Learn how careful planning of information, tools, and support can help students navigate uncertainty and solve complex problems.

Assignment design frameworks often emphasize that assignments should be clear (such as Transparent Assignment Design), or that they should be real (such as Authentic Assessment). These approaches can be in tension, as real-world situations are often complex, messy, open-ended, and ill-defined. In fact, that ambiguity is part of the appeal of real-world analogue assignments, as they ask students to seek creative solutions to problems and apply their knowledge in new ways. 

With thoughtful assignment design, it’s possible to integrate these two approaches and create assignments that are clear and open-ended. In other words, we can strive to both challenge and support students. 

Provide Information and Tools to Help Students Navigate Complex Problems 

Designing clear and open-ended assignments requires careful thought and planning for what you communicate to students and what tools you provide them. Consider this situation: 

You’re placed in the wilderness and told you must reach any one of three camps. If that’s all the information you have, you’re likely to be completely lost. You have no way to know which direction to go or for how long. You only know you’ve succeeded if you happen to luck into reaching one of the camps. Unfortunately, this is how far too many “real world” assignments are framed. 

What if you were given a compass and a general direction for each of the camps? You would know which direction to go, but you still would have no idea about which path was hardest and how far each camp was. 

Image of a map and compass being held in a forest setting as a comparison to how information and tools in assignment design can help students navigate complex problems.

Being given a map of the area would illuminate the terrain (and perhaps difficulty) of each path. Marking that map with the camps would further help you determine their distance and different ways to get there. Marking hazards or even marking trails would make navigating the path a safer proposition. 

All of these situations are open-ended: you can still choose which direction to go, how to navigate the path, how to avoid hazards, and much more. However, some of these situations are completely unclear, while others provide information, tools, and supports that clarify the situation and help guide decision-making. 

The goal of assignment design should not be to drop students into the wilderness without any support. Likewise, you should not be walking the path for students. Providing information and tools to guide complex problem-solving both challenges students and helps them succeed in meeting those challenges. 

3 Techniques for Transparent Ambiguity in Assignment Design 

Here are three techniques to help you embrace transparent ambiguity in your assignment design: 

Move your focus away from the end product and toward the framing of the problem. We are often taught to frame our assignments as end products: students will write an essay or take an exam or deliver a presentation. Instead, focus on framing a complex problem for students to solve. Explain the problem clearly and thoroughly, allowing students the freedom to explore multiple solutions and determine the best way to address the problem. 

Answer the questions, “What can you say for sure about the final product? What must you leave up to the student to determine?” For example, if students are crafting marketing materials for an organization, then those materials must integrate that organization’s brand standards in a way that is true to the organization’s brand identity. How students integrate those brand standards and what they build with that organization’s brand may be much more open-ended. I call these “creative constraints” – by giving students a clear picture of both what must be and what is flexible, you can spark creativity and deep engagement with the problem of the assignment. 

Provide guiding questions and help students explore possible solutions. As the wilderness exploration example showed, you can support students in navigating uncertainty while still leaving elements uncertain. If you set up a complex, messy problem but leave students completely alone to address it, they will likely feel lost and overwhelmed. One of the best supports for complex, messy problems is questions, not answers. Help students consider the questions they need to answer and support them exploring solutions to the problem. For example, if you are asking students to research a topic of their choice, give them guidance on how to identify their own interests, find a productive topic, and narrow the scope of research. 

Let’s put all of this together to consider an example of an assignment designed with transparent ambiguity. 

An Example: Restaurant Menu Design 

Image of a person holding a restaurant menu.

In a course on graphic design, one assignment I ask students to complete is a restaurant menu. While this may seem like a finished product, I frame it much more as a design problem to solve. I put myself in the role of the owner of a fictional restaurant. I conduct a design brief meeting with students in which I role-play as the restaurant owner, having students ask me questions about the restaurant and what I need in a menu. 

This process has the benefits of: 

  1. Helping students explore creative solutions to the design problem being presented. 
  2. Being authentic to the types of design situations students will likely find themselves in later in life. 
  3. Developing inquiry skills, a necessary part of identifying the constraints of any design situation. 
  4. Doing all of the above in the “safe” space of the classroom where I can guide and support students through their learning. 

Throughout this process, I make it clear to students that they are not allowed to omit any dishes from their menu design just because they’re inconvenient to their layout. I also specify that files must be properly prepared for printing, though the details of what that looks like will depend on their individual design decisions. 

I emphasize in the assignment that students must listen to their “client” (me in the role-play) and show evidence that they are working to address the client’s needs. This allows for productive exploration of transparent ambiguity during the design brief meeting. I can share with students my “vision” for the restaurant and its brand. I can share with students how I view my dishes and the experience of eating at the restaurant. Students have opportunities to poke and prod at these areas to gain a better understanding that can inform their decision making. 

The specifics of how students address these areas, though, are open-ended. Should the menu have sections or not? What should those sections be? What color scheme should the menu use? How is the restaurant’s brand incorporated? What markers (gluten-free, spicy, etc.) should be included, if any? How are prices framed? What size and material are used in printing? How many pages should the menu be? How are photographs or illustrations incorporated, if at all? Is there a cover, or does the menu immediately launch into presenting dishes? These questions are all open, but by guiding students in inquiry, I’m able to help them explore how to answer these questions. 

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Additionally, I both provide some of the above questions and support students in brainstorming questions. Before the design brief meeting, we create a collaborative document as a class and determine what questions to ask the “restaurant owner.” I spark the discussion with some of the above questions, then I encourage them to come up with many more. We collaboratively highlight the ones students will actually ask in the design brief session. This process helps students develop inquiry skills while also helping them define the bounds of the assignment.

Helping Students Succeed Through Transparent Ambiguity 

If all this sounds complex and messy, it is! However, it’s also as transparent as possible, giving students core requirements (such as not omitting dishes) and supporting them in navigating the murky areas. Ultimately, this approach both challenges students to explore a complex process and supports them in making that process as transparent and clear as possible. 

Meaningful learning happens when students are challenged and stretched, but also when they are supported and guided. Transparent ambiguity is a powerful way to design assignments precisely because it seeks to do both, guiding students along an unclear path toward solving an authentic problem. 

How do you navigate this tension in your assignments? Share your thoughts in the comments below. 

  • Eva Grouling Snider

    Eva joined the Division of Online and Strategic Learning in 2021. Previously, she taught professional writing courses in the English Department, including graphic design and web development. She launched Jacket Copy Creative (now known as Compass Creative), an immersive learning course in which students helped market the English Department (and now the entire College of Sciences and Humanities). She also served as a director of advertising at a social media advertising agency in Muncie. Her interests include UDL, digital accessibility, and design. She’s often busy “hacking” Canvas to do cool things.

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