9.4 Constructive Alignment

Author: Rayya Ghul

What is Constructive Alignment?

Constructive alignment is a power tool for learning design and brings together many of the modern concepts of higher education learning and teaching.

At its heart is the idea that if all parts of the learning process (learning outcomes, content, assessment methods and learning activities) are ‘aligned’, then it increases the learning potential for all students, not just the ones who are already pre-disposed towards higher education learning.

When a course is constructively aligned, the students are clear about what they have to do to pass the course because how they demonstrate their learning is embedded in the learning outcomes.  They are given the appropriate tools to develop their knowledge through well-chosen content.  Finally, the activities they do as the process of learning are designed to give them direct experience of the way they will demonstrate their learning so that when they come to do the assessment they are prepared and confident.

If this sounds a little like spoonfeeding students, it really isn’t.  When constructive alignment is done well, it is the opposite.  The key is in ensuring that you are using higher education goals to structure the learning outcomes. This, of course depends on understanding how to set ‘good’ learning outcomes for higher education.

One useful tool to help create good learning outcomes is the SOLO taxonomy (https://www.johnbiggs.com.au/academic/solo-taxonomy/).  This describes the increasingly complex thinking and activity required for higher education learning and provides course designers with a framework for writing learning outcomes that reflect the demands and critical skills of higher education  SOLO stands for the Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome and this focus helps avoid the use of non-measurable, vague words in writing learning outcomes, such as ‘understanding’.

Constructive alignment also helps to conceptualise the teacher-student relationship for enhancing learning.  John Biggs, who first began to think about constructive alignment in the early 1970’s, proposed that what was important to learning was what the student did rather than either what the teacher did or what the student’s disposition towards learning might be at the outset.  Nowadays, we are familiar with the importance of Active Learning and a growth rather than fixed mindset (Dweck).  However, without an underlying framework of the student learning journey, it’s harder to know why, when and how to set up active learning experiences within a course or classroom.

When we use those ideas within the frame of constructive alignment, they become contextualized and more useful.  The learning outcomes are not just a goal, they are the compass for any course.  In higher education we are not just teaching content to be memorised or harder facts to be grasped.  We are inducting students into disciplines or professions.  These have distinctive forms of knowledge and ways of applying and testing them.  Learning outcomes must reflect this because it signposts to students how they will be expected to demonstrate their learning.

Once the learning outcomes are clear, the course designer using constructive alignment will design a suitable assessment for the student to demonstrate their learning. There are two useful questions you can ask:

1. Intended learning outcomes: What do I want my students to know and be able to do at the end of the course?

2. Assessments: What questions can I ask for which an answer would satisfy me that the students do know and can do?

The learning outcomes may influence the focus of an essay, the type of exam or necessitate a more creative form of assessment.  In constructive alignment, it should not be possible for a student to face an assessment of which the form makes it hard to demonstrate their learning outcomes.  This is part why educators are moving away from classic exams, which mostly test memory, towards assessments that require the application of knowledge, such as a report, project or artifact and the development and use of critical skills.

The course designer is now ready to select appropriate content and design on the kinds of learning activity most suited to teaching. A third useful question can be posed:

3. Teaching & Learning Activities: In order for me to be able to ask those questions, what needs to happen in class? What does the teacher need to do, what do the students need to do?

It is at this point that good understanding of Threshold Concepts and different kinds of learning activities (https://youtu.be/wnERkQBqSGM) become important. An understanding of threshold concepts will guard against over-stuffing teaching time with content that the students could find out by themselves and instead focus on the key elements that hold knowledge together in the discipline.  A course that is well aligned will use activities that directly relate to those in the learning outcomes. This is how the course designer ensures that what the student does is the main focus of design.

For example, if an assessment requires students to compare and contrast two different theories and show how they are used by the discipline, classroom (or online) activities should provide an opportunity to do this, say through a debate, class presentations, case studies and so on.  At the very least the teacher should use their didactic time to demonstrate this and explicitly link their process to the assessment so students can learn through example.  However, students will learn better if they have the opportunity to do it themselves.

When a course is designed using constructive alignment, all students will have greater clarity about what is required of them, they will have the chance to practice the cognitive and/or practical skills they will need to pass the assessment, and the teacher can structure their teaching so they never have to work harder than the student.

Here is an example of a constructively aligned course: DRP example of CA Rayya Ghul

References

Biggs, J. (2012) What the student does: teaching for enhanced learning. Higher Education Research and Development, 31 (1) 39-55 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07294360.2012.642839

Simper, N (2020) Assessment thresholds for academic staff: constructive alignment and differentiation of standards, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2020.1718600

Wang, X., Su, Y., Cheung, S., Wong, E. & Kwong, T. (2013) An exploration of Biggs’ constructive alignment in course design and its impact on students’ learning approaches, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 38:4, 477-491, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2012.658018

 

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