By Ryan Rideau, Associate Director for Teaching, Learning, and Inclusion, Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT), Tufts University
When I began as an instructor, I put little thought into the design of my course assignments. I simply reproduced the assignments I had when I was a student. As someone dedicated to uprooting oppressive systems and practices, I was frustrated that my classes seemed to result in students from marginalized backgrounds not performing as well others. I began to wonder what I was doing to exacerbate these inequities. In office hours, I began to ask students about their struggles in the course. Several students indicated that they struggled with the assignments. They felt the assignments lacked clarity, thus leaving them confused about what to do and questioning their own abilities. From these conversations, I began to read and learn more about equitable assessment practices. I began to slowly integrate many of the strategies into future courses. I noticed that students had a much easier time understanding the expectations in my classes as I deliberately worked to create a more welcoming environment, thus creating more equitable outcomes. In this post, I want to highlight three principles to reduce inequities when designing assignments that I learned from my own experiences.
- Transparency: When creating an assignment, it is critical that you are transparent. You should clearly and thoroughly explain the task (what to do and how to do it), the purpose (what skills will be learned and why it is important), and the criteria for the assignment (what your expectations are, and provide models). Transparency benefits all students but is particularly beneficial for students who may be entering your classrooms with less prior knowledge, resources or experience with your discipline. Being transparent in your design and instruction has been shown to improve students’ academic confidence, sense of belonging, and mastery of skills. As such, this is a key component to trying to reduce inequities in your course.
- Growth Mindset: Carol Dweck created the term “growth mindset” to refer to a way of thinking that emphasizes things you can improve through your own efforts. In a growth mindset, students believe their persistent efforts will lead them to learning course material. Conversely, in a “fixed mindset”, students believe that intelligence is set, and they are simply not capable of learning “x”, and as a result, will not put in the necessary effort to do so. Employing a growth mindset in your assignment design allows students to take risks and be more comfortable in viewing failure as an opportunity to learn. Many marginalized students have a fear of reinforcing harmful stereotypes about their identity. This fear negatively impacts their performance on high stakes exams. This is referred to as “stereotype threat”. Designing assignments that consider how to foster a growth mindset is an important part of counteracting stereotype threat by deemphasizing competition. Assignments that promote a growth mindset center the process of learning. Building up to (scaffolding) large assignments with smaller assignments, allowing for assignment and test revisions, and giving students opportunities to explain their rationale in working through course material to develop their own monitoring of learning are all ways to foster a growth mindset in the design of your assignments.
- Flexibility: Often, a single type of assignment that constitutes a large portion of a student’s grade may advantage some students while disadvantaging others (often students from less resourced schools or students with learning differences). For example, some students are more skilled at exams, others at writing, others at artistic expression, and still others at verbal communication. When possible, offering alternative assignments and weighting can help level the playing field for students. This kind of flexibility can take a number of forms. One method is to allow students to determine the weighting of the sub-tasks of an assignment that has multiple components. A second approach is to create several assignment formats for students to choose from to demonstrate whether they have met your learning objectives. While recognizing that your particular context, objectives, and class size and matter, there are often ways to be creative. Flexible design initially requires some time, particularly in creating and grading different types of assignments, so I encourage you to start small.
These are just a few recommended practices. As a whole, it is important to think through each assignment and ask yourself the following questions: Why have you chosen this assignment? How does it connect to your goals and learning objectives for the course? Does the assignment privilege certain students or abilities over others? Are there more or equally effective alternatives to assess student learning? These questions should serve as a tool for you to reflect on your overall assessment practices. This reflection can serve as a great starting point for ensuring an equitable classroom.
Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc.
Irwin, B., & Hepplestone, S. (2012). Examining increased flexibility in assessment formats. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 37(7), 773-785.
Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of personality and social psychology, 69(5), 797.
Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331(6023), 1447-1451.
Winkelmes, M.A. (2018). Transparency in learning and teaching in higher education.