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Transparent Design Instruction has the potential to improve student persistence and success.

On Friday, January 31, 2020 I attended an excellent workshop offered by our own NOVA-Loudoun AtD Chair Karen Doheney and CETL Director Nicole Tong.  The subject was Transparent Design in Instruction.  The presenter of the live webinar was Dr. Mary-Ann Winkelmes, Executive Director of Brandeis University’s Center for Teaching and Learning and leader of the TILT (Transparency in Learning and Teaching) project.  Dr. Winkelmes outlined the results of two studies in which faculty across a broad range of minority-serving institutions (two-year, four-year, urban, rural, large, small, etc.) agreed to alter just two assignments they gave during the students’ first year in college to make the purpose, method, and assessment criteria for each of the assignments fully transparent to students.  The instructions for each assignment were altered to flesh out the following:

      1. Purpose of the assignment, including its long-term relevance to students’ lives. What skills will be practiced?  What knowledge will be gained?
      2. The actual task involved:  What to do, how to do it, and what to avoid.
      3. Criteria for success.

For example, one of the sample newly altered assignments in part advised students that, “the purpose of this exercise is for you to struggle and feel confused while you develop your own approach to solving this problem.” Dr. Winkelmes pointed out that this language helped students understand that confusion and struggle were an expected part of the exercise rather than an indicator of their own shortcomings. The results of the studies were very encouraging, especially as applied to first generation students who do not have a family member to help them understand college assignments. Using this approach modify to just two assignments within a student’s first year appeared to increase students’ academic confidence, sense of belonging, metacognitive awareness of skill development, and retention rates into the second and even third year of college.

After learning about this approach, workshop participants took a partner from another teaching discipline and tried applying it to an assignment we might give in class.  Trying that experiment and getting feedback from a partner was one of the most helpful parts of the workshop for me.  in my case, analyzing all the complex skills required to do a deceptively simple assignment I gave to our SGA leaders recently was quite an eye-opener for me.

In addition to Karen Doheney, some other Loudoun folks I spotted at the workshop were Laura Young, Chola Chhetri, and Nelson Kofie.  I hope they got as much out of it as I did.

For more information on Dr. Winkelmes and her work, see this link:

I invite others who have tried these methods to comment here.


How’s it going? What have you tried, and how’s it working?

Hi, everyone. A few weeks ago at Convocation and at Loudoun Campus Faculty Professional Development Day, I invited all faculty to try at least one new retention strategy this semester. I’ve pasted the email reminder I sent below. Now I’d love to learn how it’s going! What have you tried, and how is it working? Have you tried any of the strategies I listed, or do you have other ideas? Please share by commenting –  let’s keep the ideas and conversation flowing!


From: Leidig, Julie A.
Sent: Thursday, August 22, 2019 4:19 PM
Subject: Try one of these this fall

Dear Loudoun/Reston/Signal Hill Faculty:

It’s always a great feeling to see the students return during opening week and feel the excitement of a new semester.  I’ve enjoyed seeing many of you around campus this week as Fall 2019 gets underway.

Unfortunately, each fall it’s been true that hundreds of the students we see rushing around campus during opening week won’t be here anymore in a few weeks’ time.  For many of them life will get in the way, they will feel overwhelmed, and dropping out will look like the easiest path to take.  Others will realize that they underestimated how challenging college classes were going to be.  Still others will feel alone and lost in the crowd, very sure in their hearts that they really don’t belong here after all.

What can we do to make a difference?

I’m asking each of you to consider trying just one retention strategy you haven’t tried in the past to see if it might make a difference.  Some of these ideas are very simple; others are more involved.  Here’s a menu of options you can try.  I mentioned many of these at Convocation and at Adjunct Faculty Professional Development Day, but here’s a recap in case it’s helpful.

  1. Research has established that students are more likely to persist in college when they feel a human connection there.  Learn your student’s names and a little bit about each one of them.  Find ways of reminding your students that you remember who they are.
  2. Look for ways to point out what your students are doing well in individual comments to them.  This is especially important for students who are less accustomed to hearing positive feedback from instructors.
  3. Use this CANVAS New Feature:  Send Automatic Notifications to all students who have not submitted an assignment.
  4. You’d be surprised how many community college students deal with food insecurity, housing insecurity, and other debilitating personal issues while they are trying to stay in school  Talk to your class about NOVA’s Single Stop Program/Financial Stability Network and put an announcement about it on your syllabus and/or Canvas site.  Wrap-around services include financial coaching, emergency funding, homeless services, food pantries, public benefits application assistance, etc. Here’s the website:   (
  5. Want to gather a little feedback about what students are really understanding early in the class?  Try an anonymous survey after a few weeks or at mid-semester.  Ask your students:  What questions do you have about this class?  What can I help you do better?  Tweak your course accordingly.
  6. Do you think your students really know what “Office Hours” are and how to use them effectively?  Think again!  During week 2 or 3, pass around a sign-up sheet with ten-minute blocks, inviting your students to visit you during your office hours.  Many students don’t really understand what office hours are for and won’t take advantage of them unless nudged.
  7. Try the Provost’s Challenge:  Pick just one class you are teaching this semester and explore what it might require to retain all the students until the end.  Observe which students seem to be at risk early in the semester and whether early intervention is helpful.  Contact students who miss class and find out what’s going on with them.  Share what you observe.  Coming next week:  We’ll start sharing other strategies, comments, and experiences with these techniques.  Until then, have a wonderful weekend!

Julie Leidig, Provost, Loudoun