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Aligning Teaching for Constructing Learning

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Abstract

Summary '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. All are tuned to learning activities addressed in the desired learning outcomes. The learner finds it difficult to escape without learning appropriately.
Aligning teaching for constructing learning
John Biggs
Summary
'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. All are tuned to
learning activities addressed in the desired learning outcomes. The learner finds it difficult to escape without learning
appropriately.
Biography
John Biggs obtained his Ph.D. from the University of London in 1963, and has held Chairs in Education in Canada,
Australia, and Hong Kong. He retired in 1995 to act as a consultant in Higher Education, and has been employed in this
capacity in many institutions in Australia, Hong Kong, and the United Kingdom.
Keywords
intended learning outcomes, constructive alignment, criterion-referenced assessment, teaching for active learning,
systems approach to teaching
Introduction
Teaching and learning take place in a whole system, which embraces classroom, departmental and institutional levels. A
poor system is one in which the components are not integrated, and are not tuned to support high-level learning. In such
a system, only the 'academic' students use higher-order learning processes. In a good system, all aspects of teaching and
assessment are tuned to support high level learning, so that all students are encouraged to use higher-order learning
processes. 'Constructive alignment' (CA) is such a system. It is an approach to curriculum design that optimises the
conditions for quality learning.
For an example of a poor system, here is what a psychology undergraduate said about his teaching:
'I hate to say it, but what you have got to do is to have a list of 'facts'; you write down ten important points and memorize those,
then you'll do all right in the test ... If you can give a bit of factual information - so and so did that, and concluded that - for two
sides of writing, then you'll get a good mark.' Quoted in Ramsden (1984: 144)
The problem here was not the student. In fact, this student liked writing extended essays, and finally graduated with First
Class Honours, but he was contemptuous of these quick and snappy assessments. So in psychology, he made a strategic
decision to memorise, knowing that it was enough to get him through, saving his big guns for his major subject. The
problem here was the assessment: it was not aligned with the aims of teaching.
So often the rhetoric in courses and programmes is all that it should be, stating for example that students will graduate
with a deep understanding of the discipline and the ability to solve problems creatively. Then they are told about creative
problem solving in packed lecture halls and tested with multiple-choice tests. It's all out of kilter, but such a situation is
not, I strongly suspect, all that uncommon.
What is constructive alignment?
'Constructive alignment' has two aspects. The 'constructive' aspect refers to the idea that students construct meaning
through relevant learning activities. That is, meaning is not something imparted or transmitted from teacher to learner,
but is something learners have to create for themselves. Teaching is simply a catalyst for learning:
'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)
The 'alignment' aspect refers to what the teacher does, which is to set up a learning environment that supports the
learning activities appropriate to achieving the desired learning outcomes. The key is that the components in the teaching
system, especially the teaching methods used and the assessment tasks, are aligned with the learning activities assumed in
the intended outcomes. The learner is in a sense 'trapped', and finds it difficult to escape without learning what he or she
is intended to learn.
In setting up an aligned system, we specify the desired outcomes of our teaching in terms not only of topic content, but
in the level of understanding we want students to achieve. We then set up an environment that maximises the likelihood
that students will engage in the activities designed to achieve the intended outcomes. Finally, we choose assessment tasks
that will tell us how well individual students have attained these outcomes, in terms of graded levels of acceptability.
These levels are the grades we award.
There are thus four major steps:
1. Defining the intended learning outcomes (ILOs);
2. Choosing teaching/learning activities likely to lead to the ILOs;
3. Assessing students' actual learning outcomes to see how well they match what was intended;
4. Arriving at a final grade.
Defining the ILOs
When we teach we should have a clear idea of what we want our students to learn. More specifically, on a topic by topic
basis, we should be able to stipulate how well each topic needs to be understood. First, we need to distinguish between
declarative knowledge and functioning knowledge.
Declarative knowledge is knowledge that can be 'declared': we tell people about it, orally or in writing. Declarative
knowledge is usually second-hand knowledge; it is about what has been discovered. Knowledge of academic disciplines is
declarative, and our students need to understand it selectively. Declarative knowledge is, however, only the first part of
the story.
We don't acquire knowledge only so that we can tell other people about it; more specifically, so that our students can
tell us - in their own words of course - what we have recently been telling them. Our students need to put that
knowledge to work, to make it function. Understanding makes you see the world differently, and behave differently
towards that part of the world. We want lawyers to make good legal decisions, doctors to make accurate diagnoses,
physicists to think and behave like physicists. After graduation, all our students, whatever their degree programmes,
should see a section of their world differently, and to behave differently towards it, expertly and wisely. Thus, simply
telling our students about that part of the world, and getting them to read about it, is not likely to achieve our ILOs with
the majority of students. Good students will turn declarative into functioning knowledge in time, but most will not if they
are not required to.
Accordingly, we have to state our objectives in terms that require students to demonstrate their understanding, not just
simply tell us about it in invigilated exams. The first step in designing the curriculum objectives, then, is to make clear
what levels of understanding we want from our students in what topics, and what performances of understanding would
give us this knowledge.
It is helpful to think in terms of appropriate verbs. Generic high level verbs include: Reflect, hypothesise, solve unseen
complex problems, generate new alternatives
Low level verbs include: Describe, identify, memorise, and so on. Each discipline and topic will of course have its own
appropriate verbs that reflect different levels of understanding, the topic content being the objects the verbs take.
Incorporating verbs in our intended learning outcomes gives us markers throughout the system. The same verbs need to
be embedded in the teaching/learning activities, and in the assessment tasks. They keep us on track.
Choosing teaching/learning activities (TLAs)
Teaching and learning activities in many courses are restricted to lecture and tutorial: lecture to expound and package,
and tutorial to clarify and extend. However, these contexts do not necessarily elicit high level verbs. Students can get
away with passive listening and selectively memorising.
There are many other ways of encouraging appropriate learning activities (Chapter 5, Biggs 2003), even in large classes
(Chapter 6, op. cit.), while a range of activities can be scheduled outside the classroom, especially but not only using
educational technology (Chapter 10, op cit.). In fact, problems of resourcing conventional on-campus teaching, and the
changing nature of HE, are coming to be blessings in disguise, forcing learning to take place outside the class, with
interactive group work, peer teaching, independent learning and work-based learning, all of which are a rich source of
relevant learning activities.
Assessing students' learning outcomes
Faulty assumptions about and practices of assessment do more damage by misaligning teaching than any other single
factor. As Ramsden (1992) puts it, the assessment is the curriculum, as far as the students are concerned. They will learn
what they think they will be assessed on, not what is in the curriculum, or even on what has been 'covered' in class. The
trick is, then, to make sure the assessment tasks mirror the ILOs.
To the teacher, assessment is at the end of the teaching-learning sequence of events, but to the student it is at the
beginning. If the curriculum is reflected in the assessment, as indicated by the downward arrow, the teaching activities of
the teacher and the learning activities of the learner are both directed towards the same goal. In preparing for the
assessments, students will be learning the curriculum. The cynical game-playing we saw in our psychology undergraduate
above, with his 'two pages of writing', is pre-empted.
Matching individual performances against the criteria is not a matter of counting marks but of making holistic judgments.
This is a controversial issue, and is dealt with in more detail in Biggs (2003, Chapters 8 and 9). Just let me say here that
the ILOs cannot sensibly be stated in terms of marks obtained. Intended outcomes refer to sought-for qualities of
performance, and it is these that need to be stated clearly, so that the students' actual learning outcomes can be judged
against those qualities. If this is not done, we are not aligning our objectives and our assessments.
Conclusion
Constructive alignment is more than criterion-reference assessment, which aligns assessment to the objectives. CA
includes that, but it differs (a) in talking not so much about the assessment matching the objectives, but of first expressing
the objectives in terms of intended learning outcomes (ILOs), which then in effect define the assessment task; and (b) in
aligning the teaching methods, with the intended outcomes as well as aligning just the assessment tasks.
References
Biggs, J.B. (2003). Teaching for quality learning at university. Buckingham: Open University Press/Society for Research into
Higher Education. (Second edition)
Ramsden, P. (1984). The context of learning. In F. Marton, D. Hounsell, and N. Entwistle, N. (eds), The Experience of
Learning. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.
Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to teach in higher education. London: Routledge.
Shuell, T.J. (1986). Cognitive conceptions of learning. Review of Educational Research, 56, 411-436.
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The context of learning
  • P Ramsden
Ramsden, P. (1984). The context of learning. In F. Marton, D. Hounsell, and N. Entwistle, N. (eds), The Experience of Learning. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.