STEM Education Poetry

Clarifying Language

STEM assignments can tend towards asperity;
Links twixt aims and the grades can lack clarity.
Homework’s goals will be bolstered
With structures “upholstered”:
Clarify learning goals through transparency!  

This STEM-education-themed poem describes the principles behind “transparent assignment design,” which I personally first encountered in a 2019 teaching workshop (although the principles involved have certainly been established in educational practice for many years previous!). I’ve been thinking over the past few days about the challenges posed by the hidden curriculum in my own courses and how those arise particularly easily when assignment designs are “opaque.”    

STEM assignments can tend towards asperity;/
Links twixt aims and the grades can lack clarity. 
In the chemistry courses I teach, assignments like exams, homework, and lab reports are intended to highlight my visible-curriculum learning goals: conceptual understanding; problem-solving; data analysis; scientific communication.  However, within assignments, individual questions and problems can be highly algorithmic, often assessed primarily on whether a “right answer” was obtained.  Such dissonance between learning goals and graded work seems harsh and can deter a student’s learning, as I described in a previous entry.    

Homework’s goals will be bolstered /
With structures “upholstered”: /
Clarify learning goals through transparency!  
In thinking about this challenge more deliberately, I remembered an excellent presentation I heard in Spring 2019 from Suzanne Tapp, an expert on the use of “transparent design” in higher education.  She discussed how student learning from an assignment can be greatly enhanced when an instructor takes time to thoughtfully outline a given assignment, focusing on the purpose, the task, and the criteria.  (This point facilitated the rhyme of “bolstered” and “upholstered” in the third and fourth lines in the limerick: examining how embellishment of an assignment’s structure can strengthen it.)     

For instance, rather than simply tell my students “take an IR spectrum of this sample and write a lab report about your experiment,” I could outline the report’s purpose (to gain conceptual knowledge about vibrational spectroscopy; to develop skills in communicating scientific results to other scientists); the task (scaffolded instructions for each different section of the lab report); and the grading criteria (including a rubric or a sample response, to be as clear to students as possible).  This would become the substance of the assignment handout that I provided to my students.  Experts with “transparency in learning and teaching (TILT)” have highlighted how this practice can optimize learning for the entire classroom and lead to greater equity in STEM classrooms

As with many teaching workshops, the material was fascinating, and yet it’s taken me longer than I’d like to put the lessons learned into action.  I deliberately moved towards more spoken, in-class explanations about the “why” and “how” behind assignments in my classrooms in 2019-2020, but I didn’t create the text-based documents to support those questions.  Such an action is another concrete step I can take towards a more supportive classroom, as I prepare for the fall semester.  I plan to continue this discussion in next week’s post.