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Constructive alignment

Constructive alignment is the phrase coined by John Biggs in 1999 to describe an approach to curriculum design which is focused on closely aligning teaching and assessment to intended learning outcomes.  There are two key elements to constructive alignment:

Constructivism

Constructive alignment draws on constructivist approaches to learning theory.  For constructivists, students ‘construct’ knowledge for themselves through what they do. ​ We cannot simply put information into students’ heads: we present information and they construct their knowledge from what we have presented.  Therefore, in this understanding of the educational process, what the student does is just as important as what the teacher does. 

Alignment

Biggs argues for curriculum design to be focused around clear intended learning outcomes which express what students should be able to do by the end of the course - these outcomes should be assessable.  Biggs writes: 'The learning activity in the intended outcomes, expressed as a verb, needs to be activated in the teaching if the outcome is to be achieved and in the assessment task to verify that the outcome has in fact been achieved. (1999, p. 52)  

The design process

  1. Intended learning outcomes are formulated first - what do you want students to get out of the course?  What should they be able to do by its end and how will this be demonstrated?
  2. The learning outcomes then inform the assessment regime - how best can the outcomes be assessed?
  3. Teaching and learning activities are designed to best support students to achieve the learning outcomes through the course assessment.  

Teaching and learning

Constructive alignment has a strong focus on active learning as a teacher's role is understood to be more about facilitating and creating an effective curriculum and learning environment.  What is most crucial for learning is what the student does.  The alignment of assessments to learning outcomes takes advantage of what Biggs terms 'backwash' (2003, p. 140); the tendency of students to learn what they think will be assessed.  By closely aligning outcomes, teaching and learning and assessment the process is also fairer to students - there is no hidden agenda or curriculum as it is clear what they need to achieve and how this will be measured. 

Constructive alignment is also concerned with assessment for learning - assessment processes which are a learning experience in and of themselves, rather than just a measure of learning.  Authentic assessment activities which try to mirror the kinds of tasks students may be engaged in when they move into the workplace or further study often allow them to be engaged in deep, active and useful learning experiences.

 

Useful resources: 

Assessment for learning: how might students and academics negotiate the teaching, grading and feedback cycle in an age of accountability? 

Speaker: Pete Boyd (26/01/2016)

QMUL Teaching and Learning Conference 2016

Video available - https://youtu.be/_VGvR7pg3LA 

Assessment matters: it shapes student approaches to learning. What experiences of assessment do undergraduates bring from their schooling and how do academics manage their continuing assessment experiences within the significant influence of quality assurance systems? In this keynote I will outline the paradigmatic ‘constructive alignment’ approach to assessment, which has been adopted so widely and enthusiastically by quality assurance agencies and universities. Informed by the growing body of research on assessment in higher education I will challenge this framework and suggest strategies that academics might use to mediate the unintended consequences for students of high accountability workplace contexts. My intention is that this keynote and the subsequent discussion will provoke your thinking and provide practical tools for development of assessment literacy and practice.

Revisiting John Biggs’ Teaching for Quality Learning at University

(Resource created by Steph Fuller for the ADEPT website - 22/12/2015)

Today I was rereading Biggs and Tang’s Teaching for Quality Learning at University ahead of the start of our course on Curriculum Design.  The relevancy of many of the points made originally in 1999 is still striking.  Before setting out their hugely influential model of constructive alignment, the authors take time to define three conceptions of teaching.  Level 1 is where teaching is ‘held constant’ (16) and differences in student achievement are understood as a result of student ability and background, not anything to do with the teaching.  At Level 2 the understanding of teaching is still centred around the teacher but focuses on the effectiveness of their transmission of data or knowledge to the students.  While a Level 3 conception of teaching, which the authors hope constructive alignment will help engender, is student-centred and concerned with what the students are doing; what levels of understanding are required and what teaching, learning and assessment activities can help achieve this.

So much of university teaching and assessment is aimed precisely at the kinds of selection and differentiation between students that the authors criticize as characteristic of a Level 1 understanding of teaching.  Despite initiatives around widening participation, inclusive curriculum and better understanding of culturally diverse learning needs, much of university teaching and assessment does seem to reinforce the view that differences in achievement are solely a result of different innate abilities, backgrounds and schools.

How can we shift more towards a genuinely student-centred approach where teaching and learning activities and assessment are used to support learning, as well as to select and certify?  Of course a great deal of work is already happening and most colleagues who have joined us for ESDM011 leave the course with highly accomplished pieces of curriculum design which are explicitly focused on helping students develop skills for independent, lifelong learning, alongside academic subject knowledge.  It will certainly be interesting to see how the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework will effect this work that seeks to bring teaching and learning more in line with Biggs and Tang’s ‘Level 3. Focus: what the student does.’

 

 

Further resources 

A useful short summary of constructive alignment: Biggs, J, 'Aligning teaching for constructing learning'. 

Biggs, J. and Tang, C. (2003) Teaching for Quality Learning at University – What the Student Does 2nd Edition SRHE / Open University Press, Buckingham.

Biggs. J. (2003) Teaching for Quality Learning at University – What the Student Does 2nd Edition SRHE / Open University Press, Buckingham.