Constructive Alignment

Constructive Alignment (Biggs, 1999) is a fundamental principle for course design in higher education. It is the underpinning concept of the current use of Learning Outcomes and assessment criteria, and indeed programme specifications. It is concerned with the alignment of learning outcomes for a course or module set by the teacher, the student learning required to achieve these, and Assessment of the student activities to demonstrate the degree to which the outcomes have been achieved. Therefore the starting point is the curriculum and what needs to be learned, and the focus is on what the students will do, how teaching can support their learning, and how this learning can be demonstrated and assessed.

Constructive alignment is about getting students to take responsibility for their own learning, and is seen as a way of engaging students in ‘deep’ rather than ‘surface’ learning.

The following extract from the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD) demonstrates how constructive alignment is achieved in course design:

‘A model of course design can be described in the following three stages:

Stage 1: Decide on the intended learning outcomes. What should the students be able to do on completion of the course, and what underpinning knowledge and understanding will they need in order to do it, that they could not do when they started? (This obviously poses the questions: what have they done before and what prior ability and knowledge can you expect?) These learning outcomes should each be described in terms of what the student will be able to do, using behavioural verbs, and described as specifically as possible. (Verbs like 'know' and 'understand' are not helpful because they are so general. Ask yourself, "What could the student do to show me that they know or understand?") You may find it useful to group your outcomes under the following four headings: skills (disciplinary), skills (general), values and attitudes, underpinning knowledge and understanding.

Stage 2: Devise the assessment task/s. If you have written precise learning outcomes this should be easy because the assessment should be whether or not they can satisfactorily demonstrate achievement of the outcomes.

Stage 3: Devise the learning activities necessary (including formative assessment tasks) to enable the students to satisfactorily undertake the assessment task/s. These stages should be conducted iteratively, thereby informing each stage by the others and ensuring coherence.’

Constructive alignment is a very important concept, but hard to grasp. An excellent introduction to the nature and motivations of students in higher education today and the principles of constructive alignment is given in the following film. It is available for purchase at a reasonable cost or it can be viewed in three parts by following a link from the web page:

"Teaching Teaching & Understanding Understanding"
Claus Brabrand and Jacob Andersen's 19 minute award-winning short-film about Constructive Alignment. 
Aarhus University Press, University of Aarhus, Denmark, 2006.

The definitive guide to constructive alignment is given in Biggs, J. (1999) Teaching for Quality Learning at University, SRHE and Open University Press, Buckingham.

The Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development provides links to a useful range of information on assessment and constructive alignment.

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