Identify easy ways to incorporate Transparent Assignment Design in your course.

Thinking back on my first online courses I developed in Blackboard over a decade ago, the assignment instructions and other context that I provided were fairly minimal. I didn’t recognize that my learners needed more. I was primarily focused on the content. As a new instructor teaching gender studies courses, I wanted to convey my excitement and expertise on the topic—that I was a trustworthy guide for my students’ learning journey.

As I honed my teaching practice over the years, I found that being a trustworthy guide extends beyond content expertise. It’s also important that I share with students the purpose for each assignment. As faculty, we crave transparency in similar ways. Knowing the rationale of a task or how our labor will benefit us or our students can go a long way in cultivating trust.

Sharing the purpose of an assignment is a key component of transparent assignment design (TAD). In this blog, I outline easy ways to incorporate TAD in your course. Transparent assignment design especially supports our underserved and busy working learners at Ball State, who benefit from explicit assignment rationale, instructions, and success criteria.

What is Transparent Assignment Design?

When courses are developed using transparent assignment design, an assignment’s purpose and instructions are made explicit to the learner. Start with the rationale for the assignment. There are a few ways you can share the “why.”

One easy way to share the assignment rationale is to prominently include the module objectives that align with the assignment. For example, the objective may be to: “Identify how qualitative researchers ensure credibility,” and the assessment is a discussion board whereas learners examine a journal article that outlines key ways to ensure credibility and trustworthiness in research. This assessment (the discussion board) will help your learners achieve the objective. (I include an example of how to prominently include the objectives with the assignment in a Canvas page at the conclusion of this article.)

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Next, explain the task, or the instructions for the assignment. Consider creating a video to talk them through each step. Hearing the instructions in addition to reading them can help students fully grasp what you are asking them to do. Adding helpful assignment context also aligns with a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach, which provides multiple means of representation. Presenting content, including assignment instructions, in multiple modalities can support all learners in your course. Some students, for example, will grasp the instructions for the assignment more efficiently if they are presented as multimedia.

The third component of Transparent assignment design is success criteria. Your learners want to know what a successful assignment looks like. Providing success criteria helps dispel hidden curriculum about your expectations. This is an important step because students cannot read our minds—they want to know what you expect in a strong submission. There are three ways you can provide success criteria for assignments: provide an example(s) and consider adding annotations as to why this is an instructive example via written text or a screen-capture video; share a checklist of the components you’re explicitly looking for in their submissions; and provide a rubric when you post the assignment so students can both design their assignment with the rubric in mind and evaluate their work before submission.

TAD in Your Course

Our Teaching Innovation team has developed a Canvas course template to help Ball State faculty easily incorporate transparent assignment design for their course assignments. For example, the Assignment Template allows instructors to add clear instructions and success criteria, as well as an overview (which can also be a video or a podcast) and the module learning objectives—or what students should be able to do by the end of each week. Using this template will help alleviate the labor or designing a structure in Canvas that facilitates a Transparent assignment design approach. You can easily add text, graphics, videos, and podcasts to demystify your assignment expectations.

Canvas content - Assignment: Topic, Overview, Objectives, Instructions, Success Criteria, Support and Questions


How do you work to make your assignments clear and transparent to students? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

  • Cheri Madewell

    Cheri is the director of instructional consultation on the Teaching Innovation Team. Prior to joining the Division of Online and Strategic Learning, she was a faculty member for the Ball State Women’s and Gender Studies Program. Cheri’s background is in instructional design and technologies and leading international gender and LGBTQ grant projects. Madewell Cheri