Students standing around a table and working together on a large piece of paper laying on the table.

By Sara Nasrollahian, assistant director in the OTLT Center for Teaching

When introducing the final project of a recent graduate course I taught, I briefly provided the students with the goal of the assignment, an outline of the tasks to complete the assignment, and what I expected to see as a final project. The final project was an opportunity for them to engage with some interesting concepts in the field of educational psychology. However, my students asked if I could offer some examples to provide a clearer picture of the outcomes. I appreciated their desire to better understand how the assignment would enhance and demonstrate their learning, and having studied this phenomenon myself (Olsen, Haight, & Nasrollahian Mojarad, 2019), I knew how to develop a more equitable learning experience for them. When I shared examples and details of the tasks, the students’ curious brains got over their anxious brain, and they seemed more confident in their abilities to complete the assignments.

This teaching experience reiterated the significance of transparency in helping students connect more effectively to the course contexts and goals. Describing transparent teaching as thinking aloud, North (2020) argues that it helps make teaching decisions explicit to learners. Winkelmes (2019) identified foundational ideas about transparent instruction, such as

  • Explaining WHY: Explicating the applicability and relevance of academic work, enhancing students' cognitive capacity and potential to succeed;
  • Explaining HOW: Helping the students to understand how we structure their skill development and knowledge acquisition and how feedback benefits their learning experience; and
  • Supporting self-regulated learning: Providing accessible criteria can encourage students' self-monitoring and metacognition (Winkelmes, 2019).

Fostering Transparency in the Course

Establishing transparency in a course is generated through planning and teaching. Instructors can apply transparent strategies to recognize the hidden curriculum, establish clear communication with students, estimate students’ course work, and develop a learner-centered syllabus.

Recognizing the Hidden Curriculum

Hidden curriculum is referred to as “what is implicit and embedded in educational experiences in contrast with the formal statements about curricula and the surface features of educational interaction” (Sambell and McDowell 1998, pp. 391–392). The concept of hidden curriculum uncovers the differences between “curriculum as designed and curriculum in action” (Barnett and Coate 2005, p. 3). In other words, it implies the inconsistencies between what the school has structured as formal standards and what the school actors have communicated as “what really matters” (Sambell and McDowell 1998, p. 392; Donnelly, 2000; Vallance, 1974).  

Orón Semper and Blasco (2018) proposed that hidden curriculum could become explicit when the students’ experience of the learning process is not individual but emerges through their interpersonal relationship with the teacher. Therefore, the following strategies may be helpful to address the hidden curriculum implications in class discussions:

  • Discussing and developing agreements with the students on how to have dialogues in class.
  • Encouraging students to ask questions about what is unclear to them about the foundations of the topic discussed. 

Establishing Clear Communication in the Course

Communication is a critical aspect of the course experience for the students and the instructor. Fashant et al. (2019) stated that communication helps build a course community to engage students and enhance their ability to retain the information; they propose the following strategies:

  • Being mindful of your purpose and deliver your message as simply as possible.
  • Helping students articulate the right question and expound on their ideas. One strategy to help them navigate their thoughts is, "Say more about that."
  • Checking in with students about their understanding of the expectations for the course tasks and assignments.

Developing a Learner-Centered Syllabus

One significant implication of a learner-centered syllabus is that it is clear and connectable to the students. A learner-centered syllabus gives students more positive perceptions of the document, the course described by the syllabus, and the instructor (Palmer, Wheeler, and Aneece, 2016). On that note, a transparent syllabus involves,

  • Stating learning goals, objectives, and assessment plans.
  • Providing an organized and easy-to-navigate schedule.
  • Specifying the roles of the instructional team, e.g., librarians, instructors, and TAs.
  • Adding sections about helpful study strategies. For example, "How to study for exams," "How we create a learning environment," and "How I can help you succeed."

Providing an Estimation of the Course Workload

One of the first things that students investigate about a course is the workload during the semester. The clearer picture we can provide them about what to expect, the better they can connect to the way the instructor has planned the course. The Center for the Advancement of Teaching at Wake Forest University has developed a workload estimator that helps instructors calibrate how much time students need to complete course work, thus helping faculty gauge the reasonability of their course workload. A transparent strategy is then to let students know how much work, on average, they need to do to complete the course.

TILT in Action

Transparency is not limited to one specific aspect of the course. Rather, it disseminates through curricular structure, course planning, and teaching that all work together to equitably facilitate students’ learning. Going back to my teaching experience that I shared earlier, transparent assignments could help provide a more equitable learning experience for the students.

Winkelmes et al. (2016) asked faculty members to develop problem-based assignments with a clear purpose, task, and criteria and explored students’ course experiences through pre-and post-surveys. The study showed that the students who received more transparency experienced significantly more learning benefits than their classmates who received less transparency around assignments in a course, specifically in academic confidence, sense of belonging, and mastery of the skills that employers value most when hiring. This study has grown into the Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT) research study, in which faculty members from institutions across the globe use the template and checklist of transparent assignment design to better support student learning and a sense of belonging. (UI faculty can join the study as well; contact the OTLT Center for Teaching to learn more.)

TILT Retreat

Join us for the 2022 TILT Retreat featuring guidance on an evidence-based assessment design approach, dedicated time and space, and a variety of snacks for you to plan your assignment. This casual retreat will feature a discussion of the Transparency in Learning and Teaching framework, which a growing body of evidence indicates helps enhance student learning and create a more equitable course. There will also be optional support for instructors who would like to produce research on the efficacy of their assignments.

Two sessions are offered. Attend one or both. 

  • 1 to 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 2
  • 1 to 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 9

Register for the 2022 TILT Retreat



Barnett, R., and K. Coate. 2005. Engaging the curriculum in higher education. Berkshire, England: Open University Press.

Donnelly, C. 2000. In pursuit of school ethos. British Journal of Educational Studies, 48: 134–154.

Fashant, Z., Russell, L., Ross, S., Jacobson, J., LaPlant, K., & Hutchinson, S. (2019). Designing effective teaching and significant learning. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Olsen, T., Haight, E., & Nasrollahian Mojarad, S. (2019). Using principles from TILT for workshop design   and measuring the impact of instructional development. In Winkelmes, Boye, & Taps (Eds.), Transparent design in higher education teaching and leadership: A guide to implementing the transparency framework institution-wide to improve learning and retention (pp. 116-131). Sterling, Virgina: Stylus.

Orón Semper, J. V., & Blasco, M. (2018). Revealing the hidden curriculum in higher education. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 37(5), 481-498.

Palmer, M. S., Wheeler, L. B., & Aneece, I. (2016). Does the document matter? The evolving role of syllabi in higher education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 48(4), 36-47.

Sambell, K., and L. McDowell. 1998. The construction of the hidden curriculum: Messages and meanings in the assessment of student learning. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 23: 391– 402.

Vallance, E. 1974. Hiding the hidden curriculum: An interpretation of the language of justification in nineteenth-century educational reform. Curriculum Theory Network 4(1): 5–22.

Winkelmes, M.A. (2019). Understanding the concepts behind transparency in learning and teaching. In Winkelmes, Boye, & Taps (Eds.), Transparent design in higher education teaching and leadership: A guide to implementing the transparency framework institution-wide to improve learning and retention (pp. 17-35). Sterling, Virgina: Stylus.

Winkelmes, M. A., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J., & Weavil, K. H. (2016). A teaching intervention that increases underserved college students’ success. Peer Review, 18(1/2), 31-36.