Small Teaching: Transparent Content

This is the eighth post of the Carefully Curated Series for the Spring 2024 semester.

In my last blog, I discussed the small teaching move, Winkelmes et al. (2016) Transparent Assignment Design (TAD). As part of the Transparency In Learning and Teaching (TILT) Project, Winkelmes et al., (2016) studied the impact of a very small and very simple teaching move, Transparent Assignment Design (TAD). A transparent assignment communicates information that may be otherwise implicit. It has three parts:

  • A Purpose;
  • Task Description; and,
  • Criteria for Success.

The intent of transparency is to make “visible” the invisible or unwritten rules of college. 

Applying TAD to Content

The same premise can be applied to course content (i.e., readings, videos, podcasts, etc.). You probably already do this in your in-person or even synchronous online courses. In a synchronous course, we can help students understand the purpose behind our included content. Take, for example, an assigned reading. We can verbally explain how it will be necessary for an upcoming task, provide background on the author or significance of the text, and what students should focus on when reading. But online, if we only indicate what to read, students are left with the task of figuring out why it matters and what they really need to grasp. 

Novice v. Experts

We must remember that our students are novices in our discipline. So the cognitive load of reading is a bigger lift because it is all new information to them. Whereas, an expert already has the background, experience, and conceptual understanding to make strategic decisions on where to invest mental energy when determining what is relevant to the learning objectives. To support novice learners, adding transparency helps them make the mental moves of an expert so their engagement with the content is more efficient, meaning they have more cognitive bandwidth to process new information. 

From TAD to Content

To make content more transparent, consider applying the TAD template in the following way:

Purpose – “Why”

The purpose explains to students why you’ve selected this content. 
The “so what”: What is the connection to the course? 

  • Which assignments will it support? 
  • Which career skills? 
  • Which project? 

The background: How does it relate to the discipline?

  • Is this a seminal author/contributor?
  • Is this a review of previous concepts?
  • Is it reflective of a critical era or transition? 

Task – “How”

Defining the task helps students mentally prepare for the content and actively interact with it while working through it. 
Preparing: Activating Prior Knowledge/Making Connections

  • Helping students retrieve and reconnect to what they already know, OR
  • Helping students understand a foreign concept by providing an analogy drawing on their own experience

Active Learning: Interacting with the content

  • How should students take notes or make annotations? 
  • How many practice problems should students work on? 
  • How can students reflect on their thinking (metacognition) while consuming the content? 

Criteria – “What”

Rather than grading criteria, this is the criteria students should use to self-check their understanding, identify areas they need to revisit, and topics or concepts they should bring to office hours or campus tutoring centers for further clarification. 

  • What key terms should students be able to define? 
  • What theories should they be able to explain?
  • What formulas should they be able to apply? 
  • Etc. 

So, you may be asking . . .

How am I supposed to do that? The next section will provide some small moves that you can incorporate to make your content more transparent without adding a lot of time to your course development. 

Small Move: Supporting Cognitive Connections

A critical step in helping students engage meaningfully with your content is to foster connections between what they already know and what they are learning before, during, and after engaging with content. Below is a basic overview of how to support cognitive connection-building, but for specific examples and teaching ideas, follow the links shared below. 


Warming up the brain means building students’ background or helping them activate prior knowledge (APK) related to the topic. If the content includes a new or challenging topic, situate it within an everyday scenario students have likely experienced. Or, provide a pre-thinking prompt that directs students to take one minute and jot down what they remember from the last module or a concept introduced in a prior course. Alternatively, provide a link to a short video that reviews or introduces concepts related to the topic. For specific preparation examples, explore the Support Connections Tab in How to Add Transparency to Content Support Page

Active Learning

Supporting connection-making while students engage in content begins with providing them with strategies to interact with the content. Supporting interaction can range from a skeleton outline students can fill in as they read or watch to leveraging learning technologies such as to support social annotation or PlayPosit to embed questions into video content. Providing scaffolds to support active content consumption supports students who have not been exposed to the skills and strategies necessary to engage with course content independently. For specific active learning examples, explore the Scaffolding Tab in How to Add Transparency to Content Support Page


Providing ways for students to self-check their knowledge helps them evaluate their own understanding. Self-checks should not be graded. These are low-tech, no-stakes quick checks that ask students basic questions they should be able to answer after they finish reading, watching, or listening. The purpose is to help students determine if they need to re-engage with content or if their current understanding is on point. For specific self-check examples, explore the Self-Check Tab in How to Add Transparency to Content Support Page

More Resources for Leveling-Up Content Transparency

Teaching and Learning Innovations (TLi) recommends several resources to support faculty interested in adopting this small but powerful teaching move.

Favorite Finds


If you haven’t explored the Crash Course Series on YouTube, you should! These are free professionally produced 5-15 minutes student-friendly videos that are already captioned. 


We have several favorite reads. CSUCI Faculty, the books below are available electronically via Broome Library! 


The Learning Scientists provide learning strategies grounded in learning science, free videos, and downloadable resources you can share with students to support their independent, active learning and study skills. 

On-Demand Microcourse

For specific guidance and examples for making content more transparent, please explore TLi’s Microcourse, Crafting Transparent Content into synchronous and asynchronous courses. 

CSUCI Educators

If you are a CSUCI Faculty, you can earn the Crafting Transparent Content Digital Badge by self-enrolling in TLC 101 before taking the microcourse. 

Non-CSUCI Educators

You can view the microcourse; but know you will not be able to contribute to the discussion or earn the badge. 

Viewable pages include:

Course Starter Kit 2.0

TLi provides a Course Starter Kit to support inclusive course design. The learning content page templates are designed according to the design of more transparent content. The TLi Guide: TLi Course Starter Kit 2.0 will show you how to locate and import the kit from Canvas Commons. The kit provides an instructor page with guidance in purple text for what to include to make content transparent and a second content template ready for editing. To support self-checking, a space is provided for adding a few questions or linking to a self-check quiz in Canvas. Quiz templates also support TAD

Ready to Try? Start with 20 Minutes!

I hope the shared resources make adding transparency to course content easier. For CSUCI faculty, schedule a consultation with a learning designer if you’d like to discuss ways to increase transparency in any course modality! I appreciate Tobin and Behling’s (2018) approach to course improvement. They advise beginning with something you can complete in just 20 minutes. So, look at the next piece of content coming up. In just 20 minutes, how can you make it more transparent? 

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