What is constructive alignment?
Constructive alignment is a theoretical framework for learning design based around the idea of aligning the learning outcomes, the learning activities, and the assessment in a constructivist framework. The theory was developed by John Biggs and this briefing provides a short introduction.
The learning outcomes, learning activities and assessment should be aligned. This means that the activities should develop the skills identified by the outcomes and consequently prepare students for the assessment, which should in turn assess those skills. At first glance this seems straight-forward and obvious, yet a brief look at most courses or reflection on your own experience will tell you that this alignment is often missing and can be difficult to really achieve fully.
The constructivist framework behind the theory is connected with the idea that students construct their own knowledge. This doesn’t mean that everyone has a different theory of gravity, but that their understanding is constructed via a combination of the experiences and prior knowledge (and reflection). Thus the way people think about, say, gravity, is quite different and of course may contain misconceptions.
What students do
A major foci of constructive alignment is the central consideration of what students actually do, not what the teacher does, or who the students are. Biggs considers these as different levels of views about learning. This focus combines the two aspects above together - the constructivist aspect of the theory is present here particularly in thinking about how students learn via the activities they engage in (though don’t forget the prior knowledge and reflection), and the alignment aspect focusses attention on whether these activities are actually linked to what you wish them to learn and the skills they should develop.
How might constructive alignment ideas affect my practice?
Self-evaluation: You can consider the alignment of your own course as a method for self-evaluation and diagnosing problems. This is frequently done when examining the assessment – does it assess what you expect and what it should (the outcome, based on this framework)? However, this can also be used to consider the learning activities – the sessions, activities within them, independent learning tasks etc. How well are they aligned with the outcomes and how well do they prepare students for the assessment? The focus on the students’ activities is different to some other approaches and can lead to questions to consider for your own teaching – what should students be doing in lectures exactly? Could other activities be a more profitable use of the time available?
Due to constraints, context and historical tradition (whether global, discipline, national or local) methods of teaching or assessing may often be fairly fixed. There is value in consistency, but there is also a need to question whether a particular method is aligned well with the outcomes, which are what you are actually trying to achieve. In some cases, the teaching method and assessment method are fixed before you even consider anything else, whereas under constructive alignment you would choose these based on the outcomes.
Order of thought: As a method on learning design, constructive alignment places a strong level of importance on the learning outcomes as the starting point for design. Whilst this might appear straightforward, it is likely different to the natural way that many people would approach planning a teaching session or course – starting with a list of content and topics and a fixed learning design in terms of sessions and assessment. Whilst you would by necessity generally have some idea of the overall topics and content, the learning outcomes could be quite different depending on your aims for the course, the level at which you are teaching and the students. In fact, the precise content or topics might be dictated more by the outcomes you intend to achieve. Thus the design is much less driven by a list of topics as a ‘curriculum’ (which in turn may make the learning activities less content-delivery heavy).
A second change in the order of thought is that the assessment is considered as a major part of the planning. Often, courses and teaching are planned and then thought is put into how they should be assessed, or all courses are assessed in much the same way, and as a result the assessment often feels very separate to the course (or indeed the learning) itself. The focus on the alignment with the learning activities can lead to more integration of the assessment along the way and a motivator for learning, and the activities planned can in turn be more linked to the skills needed for the assessment.
The focus on the learning outcomes can be off-putting to some. They are not the sum total of the course, and are useless without the learning activities and (in most HE cases) the assessment. They are thus a tool and under constructive alignment they are the guide to planning the other two aspects. Writing outcomes is something that many find difficult, but at least trying to be precise at this level and really consider what it is that should be achieved by the students, is a useful exercise for avoiding problems later on. The subtle differences are one of the reasons they can be difficult to write/articulate – what does ‘understanding’ mean? Constructive alignment as a principle is useful in avoiding outcomes just being a bureaucratic exercise. Unfortunately, that is just what they can easily become without care. There are various guides available to help you write good outcomes so if you find this difficult, seek advice.
Constraints and context can dictate many aspects of your learning design and limit what you can do. Achieving a fully aligned course is probably never going to happen to everyone’s satisfaction, but using the principle to ask questions of the design can help improve the course. Sometimes things are done a particular way for, say, resources reasons, but sometimes they are done that way because that’s just how they’ve been done in the past!
Outcome driven learning design is not the only learning design method. Some criticisms of the strong focus on initial learning outcomes include the lack of space for “emerging” or unintended outcomes and the potential removal of creativity and flexibility.
Where can I find out more?
The major source/book on the topic is “Teaching for Quality Learning at University” by Biggs and Tang.
3rd Edition (Library Copy)
4th Edition (Online Access)
The first few chapters in particular outline constructive alignment in more details and are worth reading.
Summaries and papers on the topic from different universities abound and a quick search online for the term will provide a good set of alternative or deeper explanations.