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Helping with Student Focus & Motivation in the Remote Classroom, Part 2: Prioritizing Transparency

One factor leading to decreased focus and motivation in online classes is the uncertainty many students feel in the virtual environment.  This uncertainty can arise from students never having taken an online class before, from having distractions at home that they don't have in their in-person classes, or from using technology with which they're not familiar.  This uncertainty can lead to students disengaging with the class, as they feel disconnected from the content, their instructor, and their classmates.

To support students undergoing this uncertainty and help them stay engaged, provide as much clarity as possible.  Being clear about expectations will help students gain some balance in an uncomfortable situation.  There are a number of ways we can help students minimize their discomfort--from making sure online class modules are standardized in their format within the learning management system to designing a syllabus with well-structured, clear course requirements.  One method that is useful both in in-person learning and the remote learning environment is using the TILT framework when writing assessments.

Using the TILT (Transparency in Teaching and Learning) Framework has had an incredible impact on enhancing students' success in the classroom, especially for first-generation, low-income, underrepresented college students.  Multiple studies have shown that using the TILT framework helps students succeed by changing the way that the assignment was written by identifying the purpose, task, and criteria for success for the revised assignments.  In an online environment, where some instructors may not verbally explain assignments to the same degree as they do in the traditional classroom setting and where in-person access to instructors is limited, adopting the TILT framework will help students understand expectations. It will also make clear the purpose behind their assignments--which is particularly important given the propensity for students to see many online assignments as "busy work."

So what does this look like?  Instructors can use a TILT framework template to first develop assignments that align with their course goals and then to explain those in-class activities and out-of-class assessments to their students.[1]
  • The purpose section identifies the skills and knowledge students will gain and practice while completing the assignment.  The purpose should align with institutional learning outcomes, class learning objectives, or even unit learning objectives.  It's also helpful to explain how the skills or knowledge related to the assignment will be important not just in the context of the entire course as a whole, but in students' lives beyond the time frame of the course.[2]
  • The task section explains the parameters, steps, and/or guidelines students should use in completing the assignment.  Identify any mistakes or unnecessary steps they may want to avoid in completing the assignment so students can focus on completing the assignment in an efficient and expedient manner.  If there are pedagogical reasons for withholding certain information about how to do the assignment (maybe students need to encounter desirable difficulties), be transparent about that by including a statement explaining that the task is designed to be challenging to help them learn how to overcome challenges.[3]
  • The criteria for success section outlines what the finished product might look like, differentiating between excellent work and good work so students can evaluate their work product as they complete the assignment.  It's good practice to give examples of what these characteristics might look like in real-world practice to reduce students' incentive to copy any one example too closely.  Here, instructors should also indicate whether/how this product will be graded and how it factors into their overall grade for the course.[4]
So what might this look like for a legal research assignment?  Let's say I was TILTing an assessment for a statutory research class.  It might look something like this:

This in-class exercise will give you practice searching for statutes related to your open-memo assignment using a variety of statutory research strategies in two databases: Westlaw and Lexis. You will practice:
  • Using a table of contents to locate a relevant statute
  • Using a subject index to locate a relevant statute
  • Looking up a statute by its popular name
  • Selecting statutes that are relevant to the legal issue you're researching
The skills necessary to locate statutes using these methods are transferable to other formats and databases that you may use in the future. 

For each fact pattern below, using a database and search strategies we practiced using during class, search and identify the relevant statute(s) for the research issue(s) in the provided fact pattern.  Then, list your search strategy using bullet points for each mouse click you took and explain why you used that search strategy for that problem in 1-2 sentences.  Finally, evaluate if you search strategy was successful.

Criteria for Success:  
This assignment is worth 50 points and is worth 25% of your overall course grade, which will ultimately be designated as pass or fail. The structure of your answers should include: 
(1) Source: This is where you cite the statute(s) relevant to your legal issue(s) in correct Bluebook formatting.
(2) Database used:  This is where you identify which of the legal research databases you used to answer your question.
(3) Search strategies used and why:  This is where you provide a 1-2 sentence statement of the statutory research method(s) you used and why you opted to use them in this situation.
(4) Search navigation: This is where you provide a bullet point list of mouse clicks you took to navigate to the answer.
(5) Search evaluation:  This is where you analyze how successful your search was and what, if anything, you would do anything differently next time in 1-2 sentences.

Example:  **[Note that I use a non-statutory example so students cannot copy my format exactly.]
(1) Source: 51 Tex. Jur. 3d Mental Anguish § 49*
(2) Database used:  Westlaw
(3) Search strategies used and why:  I narrowed my sources to secondary sources, Texas, and jurisprudences because I wanted a general overview of my topic, which an encyclopedia will provide.  I used to index to search because I had a topic, rather than a citation or title, to begin my search.
(4) Search navigation:  Secondary sources --> Filter by Jurisdiction: Texas and Publication Type: Jurisprudences & Encyclopedias --> Select Texas Jurisprudence --> Texas Jurisprudence General Index --> "I" --> Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress --> "M" -- > "Mental Anguish" --> Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, Elements of action --> mentalangu § 49
(5) Search evaluation:  For a topical search like this, my strategy worked well.  Because the index has so many subheadings under intentional infliction, I was able to find the elements and a general overview of my topic quickly, which would lead me to primary sources to continue my research.

Using the TILT framework may take some time to get used to, but, from a instructor standpoint, it ensures instructors are aligning their assessments with the objectives of their courses, as they're forced to explain the purpose behind the assignment in writing. This requires instructors think critically about the assessments they're designing and how they meet course learning outcomes. Combined with the extraordinary benefit to student success, using the TILT framework has obvious benefits for both instructors and students.  The TILT framework is important during traditional instruction, but it's particularly critical during online education to help keep our students focused and motivated on their learning.

[1] See also TILT Higher Ed, DRAFT Checklist for Designing a Transparent Assignment,

[2] TILT Higher Ed, Transparency Framework 1) Purpose,

[3] TILT Higher Ed, Transparency Framework 2) Task,

[4] TILT Higher Ed, Transparency Framework 3) Criteria,

*Please note that this is NOT a proper Bluebook citation for an encyclopedia; mine is currently packed for an upcoming move.

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