illustration by Clare Reid
I often talk to faculty about the importance of explaining what they’re looking for in the tests, papers, and projects they assign to students—and sometimes I get pushback. “Doesn’t that just give them the answers?” they ask. In other words, “Doesn’t that just amount to spoon feeding?” Well, as Balloo and colleagues argue in their 2018 Frontiers in Education article “Transparency Isn’t Spoon-Feeding: How a Transformative Approach to the Use of Explicit Assessment Criteria Can Support Student Self-Regulation,” transparency in assessment, if done the right way, can actually deepen student learning and increase student autonomy.
These authors do acknowledge that certain kinds of explicitness can amount to spoon-feeding; naturally students don’t learn much if their teachers just tell them exactly what to write and say. And it’s important to vary the amount of support given, in order to foster student autonomy and growth. For example, they recommend that early assignments get more scaffolding than later ones, so that students move into greater and greater independence over time. On the other hand, other kinds of explicitness are very unlikely to go too far. Telling students that you’re going to be looking for a clear thesis, for example, or three relevant sources, well-explained, doesn’t do the learning for them—it just tells them what they have to learn.
Another technique, the co-creation of assignment criteria with students, involves them even more in the course material and their own growth as thinkers. For this reason, Balloo et al. argue for abandoning a “transactional approach” to assessment in favor of a “transformative approach,” “which maximizes opportunities for enhancing students’ self-regulatory capacities.”
If this isn’t enough to make the case for explicitness, consider that there’s also an equity issue at play here. In the words of the authors, “assessments that are loosely constructed and lack clarity have the potential to disproportionately disadvantage certain groups of students, and notably, those who have often been referred to as ‘non-traditional,’ including those who are first generation in higher education, mature learners, students from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) backgrounds, and those from lower socio-economic personal histories,” because those students may be less steeped than others in classroom terminology and typical academic expectations.
In short, the transparency that these authors advocate for isn’t one that makes education easy and meaningless for students. On the contrary: appropriate explicitness and support asks a lot of both students and teachers—and it leads to the kind of learning we’re all looking for.