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Enhancing Teaching Through Constructive Alignment



Two lines of thinking are becoming increasingly important in higher educational practice. The first derives from constructivist learning theory, and the second from the instructional design literature. Constructivism comprises a family of theories but all have in common the centrality of the learner's activities in creating meaning. These and related ideas have important implications for teaching and assessment. Instructional designers for their part have emphasised alignment between the objectives of a course or unit and the targets for assessing student performance. "Constructive alignment" represents a marriage of the two thrusts, constructivism being used as a framework to guide decision-making at all stages in instructional design: in deriving curriculum objectives in terms of performances that represent a suitably high cognitive level, in deciding teaching/learning activities judged to elicit those performances, and to assess and summatively report student performance. The "performances of understanding" nominated in the objectives are thus used to systematically align the teaching methods and the assessment. The process is illustrated with reference to a professional development unit in educational psychology for teachers, but the model may be generalized to most units or programs in higher education.
Enhancing learning
through constructive alignment
Professor John Biggs
Open University 14 May, 2009
Outcomes-based Approaches
Three main forms of outcomes-based approaches. All focus
on educational outcomes, each based on a different
1. Outcome-based approaches at school level. Originally
devised by William Spady for disadvantaged children,
but later used generally e.g. Target Oriented Curriculum
(TOC) for individualising teaching.
2. Outcomes-based approaches at institutional level, used
for benchmarking, credit-transfer. Have little directly to
do with enhancing teaching and learning.
3. Outcomes-based Approaches to Student Learning
(OBASL). Defining learning outcomes at programme
and course level, to enhance teaching and learning.
What the UGC said
“The UGC’s goal in promoting outcome-
based approaches is simple and
straightforwardimprovement and
enhancement in student learning and
teaching quality.” (Alice Lam, May 05)
The UGC has asked local universities to
show that they have thought through the
"learning outcomes" they expect their
students to achieve, and that they are
organising educational experiences to
enable students to achieve these
outcomes. …
Outcome-based Approaches to
Student Learning (OBASL):
the Intended Learning Outcome (ILO)
is central
What the
student has
to do
To facilitate
attaining the
How well
the student
has attained
the ILOs
Implementing OBASL using
Constructive Alignment
What the student
has to learn
Engaging the
student in the
verb in the ILO
How well
the student
has met the
Constructive Alignment
Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)
expressed as verbs students have to enact
The very best understanding that could be
reasonably expected: verbs such as
hypothesise, apply to “far” domains,
generate, relate to principle, etc.
Highly satisfactory understanding: verbs
such as explain, solve, understand main
ideas, analyze, compare, etc.
Quite satisfactory learning, with under-
standing at a declarative level: verbs such
as elaborate, classify, cover topics a to n,
Understanding at a level that would
warrant a Pass: low level verbs, also
inadequate but salvageable higher level
Teaching / Learning
Designed to
elicit desired
May be:
Large class activities
Small class activities
as best suits context
Assessment Tasks
Format such that
the target verbs are
elicited and
in context.
Criteria clearly allow
judgement as to the
quality of the
How constructive alignment started
Constructive alignment was born at HKU.
I was teaching psychology not so that the students could
tell me what psychology they had learned, but how they
could use psychology in order to teach better. They
should be telling me if and how it had, not me telling
them how I thought it should.
They placed their evidence and reflections in a portfolio.
Lecturing to them and giving them an MCQ was obviously
irrelevant to the real aims of the course: teachers would
use psychology to teach more effectively.
If students are to learn desired outcomes in a reasonably
effective manner, then the teacher’s fundamental task is to
get students to engage in learning activities that are likely
to result in their achieving those outcomes… It is helpful to
remember that what the student does is actually more
important in determining what is learned than what the
teacher does. (Shuell, 1986: 429)
This is in fact a design for teaching:
1. Define the intended learning outcomes that refer not
only to content to be learned, but what is to be done
with that content and to what standards.
2. Create a learning environment that is likely to engage
the student in learning activities that will bring about the
intended outcomes.
3. Use assessment tasks that directly address the outcome
and that enable you to judge if and how well students’
performances meet the criteria.
4. Transform these judgments into summative grades.
Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)
. Statements of what students are expected to be
able to do after studying a course/programme.
. Expressed from the students' perspective.
. Expressed in the form of action verbs leading to
observable and assessable behaviour.
. Related to criteria for assessing student performance.
Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)
University level
What are the attributes of an ideal graduate of Open U?
Programme level
What are the intended learning outcomes for students
enrolled in the degree programme?
Course level
What are the intended learning outcomes for students taking
a particular course at a particular level within the
Distinguish the kind of knowledge you want
Declarative knowledge:
. Knowing about things
. Knowledge we can declare to someone in
writing or telling
e.g. ‘Distinguish between topic-based and
outcomes-based teaching’
Functioning knowledge:
. Knowledge we put to work in solving a
physics problem, analysing a case study,
designing a building, making an argument
e.g. ‘Write an ILO for a subject you are
currently teaching’
Alignment with teaching and assessment is
created by the verbs in the ILOs
For example: “Explain the historical evolution of nursing
Teaching is specifically aimed at activating the verb
students do the explaining, say to each other providing
feedback from rubrics defining aspects of a good
explanation. They don’t just listen to the teacher doing the
Students should be unable to complete the assessment
tasks unless they enact the same verb that is in the ILO.
Students individually explain to the class how they see the
historical evolution of nursing. The teacher, perhaps using
peer assessment too, assess each on the same rubrics.
Weak form of alignment: ‘congruence with’ ILO.
Programme and Course ILOs
Alignment between the programme and course ILOs
Programme ILOs
1. Are the ILOs aligned?
2. Do the course ILOs appropriately address the programme
3. Are the weightings appropriate?
4. Are there any gaps?
Course ILOs
Course 1Course 2Course 3
Procedures in designing Course ILOs
1. Decide what kind of knowledge is to be taught -
Declarative or functioning.
2. Select the topics to be taught.
3. Decide the levels of understanding/performance the
students are expected to achieve for the different topics.
4. Consider if all the ILOs are of equal importance.
5. Ensure a clear understanding and agreement of the
ILOs within the teaching team and other relevant
parties, e.g. External Reviewer.
6. Communicate the ILOs to students.
The SOLO Taxonomy with sample verbs indicating
levels of understanding/performance
Prestructural Unistructural Multistructural Relational Extended Abstract
one relevant several relevant integrated into generalized to
aspect independent aspects a structure new domain
Follow simple
Perform serial skills
Explain causes
Misses point
. . . .
Designing Teaching/Learning Activities
(TLAs) to Align with Intended Learning
Having designed Programme ILOs and the
Course ILOs, we now need to design
suitable Teaching/Learning Activities that
will facilitate students achieving the ILOs.
The best to do this is to activate the verbs
or learning activities embedded in the
NB: there are many alternatives to lectures
and tutorials, even in large classes.
Typical ILO Possible TLAs
Describe reading/lecture followed by presentation
Explain tutorial, written essay
Integrate project, assignment
Apply project, case study
Solve problem PBL, case study
Design, create project, creative writing
Hypothesise experiment, project
Reflect reflective diary
The point is not how you are going to teach but how and what you
want your students to learn.
NOTE! Many of these TLAs can be assessments tasks as well. Then
you have excellent alignment.
Assessment Tasks (ATs)
.provide students the opportunity to demonstrate
whether or not they have achieved the ILOs and what
level their performance is in those ILOs.
.should be appropriately designed or selected to
address the ILOs that we want to assess.
.different assessment methods (tasks) address different
ILOs. There should therefore be several kinds of task.
.provide the evidence allowing teachers to make a
judgment about the level of a student’s performance
against the ILOs and to award a final grade.
Designing Assessment Tasks (ATs)
1. Select a practicable task that embodies the
target ILO verb. (Try the TLA first).
2. Develop grading criteria so that you can make
a judgment on how well the ILO has been met
by a student’s performance on each
assessment task.
3. Decide how the graded performances can be
combined to give a final grade.
Common ILOs Possible Assessment Tasks
Describe essay question, exam, oral
presentation (peer assessment)
Explain assignment, essay question
exam, oral, letter-to-a-friend
Integrate project, assignment
Analyse case study, assignment
Apply project, case study, experiment
Solve problem case study, project, experiment
Design, create project, experiment
Reflect reflective diary, portfolio,
Communicate a range of oral, writing or
listening tasks, e.g. presentation,
debate, role play, reporting,
assignment,precis, paraphasing,
answering questions etc.
Assessing quantitatively by
using marks
qualitatively by
using rubrics?
Assessing by Marks
.Used to it.
.Seems to be the logical way to assess in certain
.Logistically easy.
.Defines quality in terms of accumulating small
. Measurement error also accumulates, thus invalidating
fine discriminations. E.g. there is no valid difference
between 74 and 75, yet to the student it can make a BIG
difference -an A or a B, or worse, a pass or fail.
.Sends undesirable messages to students (backwash).
Assessing by grading with Rubrics
Student’s performance is appropriately assessed
against what they are intended to learn criterion-
Backwash is positive.
The final grade tells students what they have
achieved and what they need for a better grade.
Requires a different mind set for some teachers.
Initially more work in designing ILOs, suitable
assessment tasks and rubrics, but once established
is no more extra work than marking.
Qualitative assessment involves making
judgments against criteria (rubrics), not
by counting ‘marks’
If ILOs are to reflect workplace or ‘real
world’ standards it is not appropriate
to state and assess them in terms of
marks obtained.
Assessment tasks should likewise
reflect the ‘real world’ ILOs.
Grading ILOs or Assessment Tasks?
Normally we grade the task (assignment, project,
etc.) but logically we should grade the ILO directly.
Question becomes: how well did the student do in
the ILO (explain …; reflect …; create …), not on how
well did the student do in the project, the exam, …
The student’s transcript might then present a profile
in terms of learning outcomes, which would
probably be of more use to an employer than a GPA,
or profile of marks.
Some Rubrics for Direct Grading of ILOs
Marginal Pass Satisfactory Good Excellent
D C- C C+ B- B B+ A-A
Grade 1.00 1.70 2.00 2.30 2.70 3.00 3.30 3.70 4.00
Explain Able to identify and briefly Able to identify a number Able to identify a full As in “Good” but
write about limited points. relevant points with some range of relevant provides views on
Very little evidence of details. Uses these points Points with details. possible alternative
using these points to to provide a fair reasoning Supported by relevant causes and/or results
provide reasoning to or causality. No evidence literature. Points are under changing
why they are inter-of a comprehensive organized to provide a conditions. Able to
related. overview of reasoning comprehensive and link current
or causality. cohesive reasoning or reasoning to
causality. situations in real-
life professional
Reflect Able to use available Able to use available Able to use available As in “Good”. Able
information to self-information to self-information to self-to generalize self-
evaluate and identify evaluate and identify evaluate and identify evaluation to beyond
limited aspects of own more aspects of own the full range of owm existing context.
strengths and weaknesses strengths and weaknesses strengthes and weak-Suggest ways of
in a general sense. No in a general sense. Little nesses. Self-evaluation improving perform-
evidence of suggestions application of theory in is based on theory. ance to real-life
of ways to improve self-evaluation and limited Increasingly able to professional
performance. No evidence suggestions of ways to suggest ways to contest.
of theory being used in improve performance. improve performance
self-evaluation. in a specific context.
Grading of Assessment Tasks
in a Portfolio (addressing whatever ILOs apply)
Marginal Adequate Good Excellent
D C- C C+ B- B B+ A-A
The pieces of evidence The evidence is relevant, The evidence presents a As in “B” but with
are relevant and accurate and covers good appreciation of higher degree of
accurate, but are several aspects of the the general thrust of the originality and
isolated, addressing course. Little evidence of course. Good coverage evidence of inter-
one aspect of the an overall view of the with relevant and nalization into
course. Demonstration course. Demonstrates accurate support. A clear personalized model
of understanding in a declarative understanding view of how various of practice. Good
minimally acceptable of a reasonable amount of aspects of the course evidence of reflect-
way. Poor coverage, no content. Able to discuss integrate to form a ion on own
originality, weak content meaningfully. thrust or purpose. performance based
justification of portfolio Good coverage but little Good evidence of on theory.
items. Inappropriate Application or integration. application of course Generalizes course
self-evaluation. Fair justification of items. Content to practice. content to new and
Attempted realistic self-Portfolio items well unfamiliar real-
evaluation justified. Realistic life contexts.
For OBASL to work, impediments to
successful implementation must be
all references in policies and
procedures to norm-referencing and
grading on the curve. ILOs are meant to
establish what students know and can
perform and at what level of
competence. Grading by comparing
students is incompatible with
constructive alignment.
all references in policies and
procedures to quantitative marking, in
percentages or anything else.
Bibliography and some websites on
constructive alignment
Biggs, J. B. and Tang, C. (2007, 3rd edition) Teaching for
Quality Learning at University, Maidenhead, UK: Open
University Press/McGraw Hill, 2007.
General Descriptions of CA
Applied to a Web course in botany
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