Constructive alignment

Learning, Teaching and Assessment suggest a trinity of three equal essential parts. At the end of the day, learning is the most important of these, and is achieved by developing suitable engagement stratagies. What, therefore, is your starting point as a university academic?

Teaching and, to a lesser extent, assessment serve learning. Simply, learning is how the student develops their knowledge, skills and attitudes.

Learner-centred design

Learning is the outcome of a student’s formative engagement in their course and requires that they are motivated. Designing teaching and assessment to promote engagement and learning leads to a learner-centred experience; one that allows each learner to make and develop their connection with the course and to arrive at their intended learning outcomes.

However much a teacher believes their job is to feed their students with knowledge, deep learning will only happen if the students are receptive to learning. Deep learning can be understood as sustained learning because the student’s investment in it has developed a fluency that allows them to apply what they have learnt to unpredictable situations. Students need to be interested and inspired: the inspirational teacher knows to focus on developing intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000) because motivated students develop their own momentum to become capable of surpassing expectations. Developing instrinsically motivated students can be challenging. This site is about designing the delivery of courses to meet that challenge.

The learning paradigm

The Learning Paradigm challenges the learner’s dependence upon a single conceptualisation of knowledge as given by the ‘teacher as provider’ and, instead, redefines the teaching role as one that orchestrates learning towards the construction of knowledge by the learner. Barr and Tagg (1995) argue that the Instruction Paradigm mistakes a means for an end and they argue that learning in higher education should be generative and centred on the learner’s development. Put another way, it is not to reify the interests of the provider. In the Learning Paradigm,“our mission is not instruction but rather that of producing learning with every student by whatever means work best” (Barr & Tagg, 1995, p. 13).

Why learner engagement is not dependent on assessment

lta-trinity-small

Learning is one part of a Learning Teaching & Assessment trinity. Designing for engagement requires course designers to have a philosophy and strategy that allows them to manipulate these three dimensions.

Assessment, however, often dominates the thinking of both students and their teachers. While assessment-driven design gains the attention of students (this was probably their learned approach when they did their A Levels), it is an extrinsic driver (‘a stick’) that ties them into a transactional and dependent mode of engagement. This tends to result in a poor experience and one that does not challenge the student to develop deeper capabilities that will hold them in good stead as agile graduates. This learning strategy is short term and of little real value therefore. Some students will succeed nevertheless, but many students will remain dependent and inflexible through life if they have not had the experience of deeply exploring knowledge in a way that is meaningful to them.

As the diagram above suggests, well-designed assessment plays an important role in supporting learning:

  • Assessment is for learning i.e. well-designed assessment is always formative and designed to stimulate and reinforce learning;
  • Assessment can play a diagnostic role helping the learner to evaluate what they already know before engaging in a piece of work or, for the academic, helping to check that learners have grasped essential knowledge before continuing (i.e. in a Flipped Classroom or using Threshold Concepts);
  • Summative assessment, when designed around intended learning outcomes, also underpins learning when it develops self-esteem and confidence and when it provides formative clear and timely feedback on a student’s progress.

(See Assessment Essentials)

The intended outcomes of a higher education develop capabilities: graduates are expected to be deep, reflective, critical thinkers capable of creatively applying what they know to different situations, professionally and through life.

Learner-centred approaches are more challenging, but also more rewarding for the teacher and the learner. Accommodating the learner can feel less certain and more risky, but the outcomes are likely to be more profound and rewarding especially if a student has never been asked what they think before. In a learner-centred environment the student learns about themselves as they learn about ‘content’ and they do this by resolving problems, finding and developing evidence, and developing and testing hypotheses. A learner-centred paradigm, therefore, is aligned to the higher levels of Blooms Taxonomy (Bloom, 1956; Krathwohl et al., 1973; Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001) leading to deeper understanding, through application, analysis, evaluation and creative thinking and action.

BloomsTaxonomy-Krathwohl

Conversely, an assessment-driven design leads to surface learning. Has a student every asked you, “Are we going to be assessed on this?” You know they are asking because they want to know if they need to pay attention. Or have you ever thought, “How am I going to fit all this content into this module? And how will I assess it all to make sure my students have learnt it all properly?” Both of these questions indicate an assessment driven approach that gets in the way of deep learning and rewarding teaching. The concept of constructive alignment helps to challenge this thinking.

Constructive alignment

As Biggs (nd, p.1) says,

Constructive alignment‘ starts with the notion that the learner constructs his or her own learning through relevant learning activities. The teacher’s job is to create a learning environment that supports the learning activities appropriate to achieving the desired learning outcomes. The key is that all components in the teaching system – the curriculum and its intended outcomes, the teaching methods used, the assessment tasks – are aligned to each other.”

Constructive alignment involves a whole system created through curriculum design. It involves students ‘constructing’ meaning – informational or ‘decalrative’ knowledge is not enough, the learner is supported in working out why knowledge is useful and how this maps to, and possibly reshapes, what they already know. This results in a ‘functional’ knowledge they can use. The learning environment (the situation or context in which learning happens, including people, prior knowledge and experience, but also and particularly the methods used by the teacher) is aligned and optimised to generate the desired outcomes. As Biggs says (ibid, p.2), “Finally, we choose assessment tasks that will tell us how well individual students have attained these outcomes…”

Biggs outlines a four step model for Constructive Alignment:

  • Defining the intended learning outcomes (ILOs);
  • Choosing teaching/learning activities likely to lead to the ILOs;
  • Assessing students’ actual learning outcomes to see how well they match what was intended;
  • Arriving at a final grade.

Conclusion

Learner engagement is a prerequisite of learning. There are many dimensions to engagement which are explored through this toolkit and much of this involves the way a student feels about their course in general, not just in the classroom (Thomas, 2012).

However, curriculum design is a good starting point for thinking about learner engagement as the basis for reviewing the teaching-learning-assessment nexus, and from that the relationships that a teacher has with their students, and that students have with each other.

A higher education is different to primary or secondary education, and university academics and students need to begin by challenging expectations to open up a stimulating learning environment.

Diagram showing Bigg's Constructive Alignment

References

Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D.R., eds. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: a revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Longman.

Barr, R.B. & Tagg, J. (1995). From teaching to learning: a new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change, November/December 1995.

Biggs, J. (nd.). Aligning teaching for constructing learning. Higher Education Academy. Online at: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/resources/id477_aligning_teaching_for_constructing_learning.pdf

Bloom, B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, the classification of educational goals – Handbook I: Cognitive Domain New York: McKay. New York: David McKay Co Inc.

Krathwohl, D. R., Bloom, B. S., & Masia, B. B. (1973). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, the Classification of Educational Goals. Handbook II: Affective Domain. New York: David McKay Co., Inc.

Ryan, R.M. & Deci, E.L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), pp. 54–67.

Thomas, L. (2012). What works? – Student retention and success. Building student engagement and belonging in higher education at a time of change. York: Higher Education Academy. Online at: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/sites/default/files/what_works_final