Peer Review

Designing Purposeful Pathways for Student Achievement through Transparency and Problem-Centered Learning

What are your learning outcomes for all of your students?” “Do your students know that these are your expectations?” “Do students understand the relationship between their demonstrated achievement of your learning outcomes and their preparation for future success in life and work?” Answering these common questions are essential to the design of more purposeful curricular pathways leading to student success. However, too many educators answer these questions with “I am not sure” or “no.” AAC&U’s recent national survey of chief academic officers, found that “85% of AAC&U member institutions report that they have a common set of intended learning outcomes for all undergraduate students ... [but] fewer than one in 10 (9%) indicate that almost all students understand those intended learning outcomes, and [only] 36% think that a majority of students understand them” (Hart Research Associates 2016, 3, 5). Is this lack of transparency and understanding of learning outcomes at the institutional level hindering student success efforts? How transparent are faculty about their intended learning outcomes at the classroom level?

As detailed in Assessing Underserved Students’ Engagement in High-Impact Practices (2013), my colleague Ashley Finley and I found that students want to understand better why their participation in a particular high-impact experience is relevant to their overall success or development. Specifically, students who participated in focus groups we conducted suggested that those responsible for designing high-impact educational experiences (e.g. faculty, student affairs professionals, and administrators) should intentionally help students “connect-the-dots” and explain exactly why engagement in these experiences should matter to their success, both in the short- and long-term. Students are more motivated to learn when they understand the end goals of their learning experience. Most importantly, they want to know how these experiences are preparing them for lifelong success. Designing purposeful and intentional pathways for student achievement requires educators to help students understand the “whyand the “how” of student learning.

In the 2006 publication, Purposeful Pathways: Helping Students Achieve Key Learning Outcomes, AAC&U promoted the development of intentional learners: students who are “self-aware about the reasons for their studies, adaptable in using knowledge, and able to connect seemingly disparate experiences” (Leskes and Miller 2006, 4). Building on this insight, AAC&U foregrounds helping students develop as intentional learners as a guiding principle within the family of projects that are part of the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative.

In 2015, AAC&U launched the next phase of the LEAP initiative called The LEAP Challenge. The project described in this journal addresses a core component of the LEAP Challenge framework—problem-centered inquiry. AAC&U’s President, Carol Schneider (2015), explained this new phase of work, this way: “The best way to prepare students to create solutions in a complex world . . . is to actively involve students in working on problem-centered inquiry from the time they enter college (and, optimally, before) until they successfully complete their degrees—two-year and four-year degrees alike. The ‘challenge,’ then, is to prepare every college student . . . to engage complex problems and questions and to ensure that they develop facility in evidence-based inquiry, analysis, and decision making” (6).

Transparent Teaching Practices and Underserved Student Learning and Success

The project, Transparency and Problem-Centered Learning, funded by TG Philanthropy, sought to develop and test the impact of using more transparent teaching practices and problem-centered assignments to support students’ learning and success. The project examined the degree to which more clearly articulated expectations for student learning and problem-centered instructional strategies deepened student learning gains, including both student perceived gains and their actual demonstrated achievement. Faculty planning at the individual classroom level along with the development of communities of practice with educators who teach in multiple disciplines within and across institutions were key components of the project design. Building upon existing research on the role of transparency in teaching, high-impact practices, and the use of a rubric for evaluating “problem solving,” developed as part of AAC&U’s Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE), the project aimed to advance understanding of effective practices for students’ development and success. Several questions guided the project design:

  • To what degree does greater transparency of intent and purpose of high-impact practices contribute to underserved students’ depth of engagement in and learning from these experiences?
  • What are the effective strategies for improving faculty transparency of intentionality and communication of goals to underserved students as part of high-impact practices?
  • How does increased student engagement through problem-centered high-impact practices result in demonstrated improvement in learning outcomes?

Faculty teams from seven minority-serving institutions (California State University–Los Angeles; Community College of Philadelphia; Heritage University; St. Edward’s University; Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York; University of Houston-Downtown; and Winston-Salem State University) were selected to participate in the project. Participating faculty were asked to select two courses and then implement transparency practices in one of the two selected courses (e.g., clearly articulated learning goals on the syllabi, additional discussions with students about the intent and purpose of the assignment, helping students understand the value of the learning goals to their future success, etc.), along with problem-centered high-impact learning assignments and/or experiences. The goal was to examine the degree to which greater transparency of intent and purpose of high-impact practices contribute to students’ depth of engagement in and learning from these experiences, and to examine the relationship between problem-centered high-impact practices and students’ demonstrated improvement in learning outcomes. Throughout the study, faculty utilized course electronic portfolios to capture reflections on effective strategies for improving transparency of learning outcomes, intentionality, and communication of goals.

The Transparency in Learning and Teaching Survey

Faculty engaged in training on transparent teaching practices designed by Mary-Ann Winkelmes from the Transparency in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education project at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a co-principal investigator in the project. To compare the influence of transparency practices on student learning, the Transparency in Learning and Teaching Survey was administered to students in both the control and experimental classes. The Transparency in Learning and Teaching Survey asks students about their perceptions of the current and future learning benefits they are gaining. The survey generates findings about learning/teaching methods best suited to increasing students’ learning outcomes with attention to differences based on students’ ethnicity, educational background, discipline/topic of study, level of expertise and class size. Faculty teams also received training on designing problem-centered assignments and high-impact practices as well as training in the use of AAC&U’s Problem Solving VALUE rubric to assess student achievement, (see the rubric on p. 6 for reference).

The project documented the value of increased transparency about learning outcomes as a positive influence on several factors that advance student success, including students’ sense of belonging (see p. 31). The project generated mixed results from the direct assessment of student work products using AAC&U’s Problem Solving VALUE Rubric. As detailed in Finley’s article, below, the mixed findings on student learning outcomes may be explained by such issues as faculty training on the use of the rubrics and the difficulties of executing multiple intervention strategies within one semester of classes.

Aside from the overall project findings, readers will learn much from the articles below about how to implement more intentional and effective teaching practices. All of the project participants are engaged in a continuous learning process to create purposeful pathways to help all students become intentional learners.



Finley, Ashley, and Tia McNair. 2013. Assessing Underserved Students’ Engagement in High-Impact Practices. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Hart Research Associates. 2016. Recent Trends in General Education Design, Learning Outcomes, and Teaching Approaches: Key Findings from a Survey among Administrators at AAC&U Member Institutions. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Leskes, Andrea, and Ross Miller. 2006. Purposeful Pathways: Helping Students Achieve Key Learning Outcomes. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Schneider, Carol Geary. 2015. “The LEAP Challenge: Transforming for Students, Essential for Liberal Education.” Liberal Education 101(1/2): 6–15.

Tia Brown McNair, vice president for diversity, equity, and student success, AAC&U

About TG
Created by the Texas Legislature in 1979, TG is a public, nonprofit corporation that promotes educational access and success so that students can realize their college and career dreams. TG offers resources to help students and families plan and prepare for college, learn the basics of money management, and repay their federal student loans. In addition, TG administers Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP) loans made before July 1, 2010, on behalf of the US Department of Education.

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