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Transparency Conveys Belief

A page within CATL Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence


"Transparency" has several meanings in the context of college teaching. Clear explanations, reduction of jargon, teaching basic disciplinary skills, and explaining what you/your class are doing and why, are all transparency strategies. Together, transparency strategies signal to students that you believe in their ability to learn by bolstering their immediate understanding of where you are going and why, rather than allowing the bafflement, floundering, or alienation that many of us experienced in our own initiation into the world of higher education. 

Most of the research has centered around closing the gap between an expert's ways of thinking and a novice's. The bottom line is this:  you are an expert with years invested in your discipline's ways of thinking. Many of the skills you use daily are second nature to you. They are not to your students, and neither are the unspoken rules of academia. The goal, then, is intentionally to make the skills, knowledge, and culture of higher education part of the learning process.

Transparency that signals to students that you believe all of them can learn begins with the course design -- to students, that will be visible first in the syllabus, but echoed in course assignments, pedagogy, and development of both disciplinary and professional skills.

Summary of Research

Studies indicate that instructors may too easily assume that students already know and can easily recall some of the skills and information that are second nature to us. Experts no longer think about the components of complex ideas or every single step and decision tree behind complex processes; the nature of expertise is that complex processes have become automatic. We can therefore easily develop the kinds of assignments necessary for students to demonstrate their mastery of our course, only to discover that at least some students did not understand some fundamental assemblage of knowledge or a couple of critical skills. We can easily slip into deficit-model thinking when this happens. Research has demonstrated that writing transparent assignments has a significant impact on equity gaps.

But more likely, we're simply witnessing the gap between students as novices and instructors as experts. For first-year students encountering your field for the first time ever, or for the first time at the exponential leap your course will take from what they learned in high school, utter transparency about what you are teaching, why you are teaching it, and how it fits into a larger framework within your discipline can be critically helpful to students.

Bear in mind, however, that you may not have been explicitly taught particular skills yourself, even in graduate school. That does not mean you should not explicitly teach a critical skill. Instead, you have the opportunity to learn a method now that might be better -- for you, as well as for your students -- than what you currently do. One strategy for addressing expert blind spots is the "decoding the disciplines" method developed at Indiana University. See the references below for a book explaining the process.


Particularly for first-year students, explain what a syllabus is. Not everyone knows that instructors organize learning, let alone how we do that or what that looks like in a syllabus. If students can see what they will learn, how they will learn it, and how they will demonstrate the extent to which they have learned, they will have an introductory understanding of a syllabus.

Help students develop an accurate and usable framework for making sense of new knowledge.  Collecting student thinking can be useful, along with teaching and evaluating students' use of metacognitive tools. Discussions with colleagues in your discipline about your own expert frameworks can provide context for understanding how students build their own frameworks and where they are likely to go wrong.

Explain how course activities lead students to your learning outcomes. Do so early and often. Remind students why you are asking them to engage in any course activity. The more specific you can be, the better. E.g., "Please read chapter 4 by Monday because it explains in detail the process you will be observing in lab . . . " Then explain why students need both:  ". . . and you need both experiences to understand it well enough to be able to use it, and that's what we'll be doing in class on Monday."

Ask colleagues for feedback on the clarity, completeness, and logic of your assignment instructions.  Remember that you are trying to defeat your expert's shorthand, so the most helpful colleagues will be those outside your discipline. If you are in the sciences, swap assignments with colleagues in the humanities or the arts so everyone benefits. See "TILT Higher Ed" below for more ideas and examples.

Talk with colleagues within your discipline about the subtler skills  that perhaps no one taught you (e.g., effective note-taking systems for large research projects; thinking like a [biologist, historian, literary critic]. While self-discovery is an essential part of mastering a discipline, we can better support that process. The Decoding the Disciplines process (see References/Resources section below) provides a useful guide and the process can produce publishable research that benefits your field. 

Work with colleagues within your discipline using a "decode the disciplines" analysis to help you capture how you approach a problem in your field as an expert. The process helps expose necessary steps you no longer do consciously. Try some think-alouds with students on similar problems to help you expose the gap between how a novice approaches a problem in your field compared to an expert.

Help students learn to converse in a diverse professional setting.  Use the Discussion Evaluation form on the CATL Teaching Improvement Guide page on Class Discussion. Ask students to identify the tenets of professional interaction in a diverse workplace (be sure to specify diverse), and add your own if students miss something important. Explain microaggressions and help students learn strategies for addressing them in any workplace.


Ambrose, Susan A., Bridges, Michael W., and DiPietro, Michele. How Learning Works : Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2010. Accessed March 14, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central. See especially Ch. 4.

Berrett, D. (2015). The Unwritten Rules of College. Chronicle of Higher Education, 62(4), 5–5.

Nickerson, R. S. (1999). How we know—and sometimes misjudge—what others know: Imputing one's own knowledge to others. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 737-759. doi:

Pace, D., & Middendorf, Joan. (2004). Decoding the disciplines : Helping students learn disciplinary ways of thinking (New directions for teaching and learning. no. 98). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pace, David. The Decoding the Disciplines Paradigm : Seven Steps to Increased Student Learning. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2017.  ProQuest Ebook Central.

Shopkow, Leah. 2017. “How Many Sources Do I Need?History Teacher 50 (2): 169–200. An example of the Decoding the Disciplines process.

Winkelmes, Mary-Ann. TILT Higher Ed: Transparency in Learning and Teaching. Examples of transparent assignments and a template for developing your own are here.


Zotero is a free electronic tool for managing sources (including electronic sources), notes, keywords, and project development for research projects. Designed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, it  replicates a pre-computer historian's index card system.

Hoskins, D. (2020). Transparency conveys belief. In Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from