GIHE’s Teaching, Learning and Assessment approach is based on Constructive Alignment (CA). The concept Constructive Alignment was first defined and elaborated by John Biggs and his collaborators over several decades and is most clearly explained in his influential book Teaching for quality learning at university (Biggs et al., 2022).
What is Constructive Alignment?
Both words in the phrase CA are important:
Constructive – Biggs et al. 2022 write that the term constructive “comes from the constructivist theory that learners construct their knowledge through their own activity, interpreting input through their already learned structures and concepts “ (Biggs et al., 2022, p. 94). This theory of learning emphasizes the central role of the learner in actively integrating new information into what they already know. During the construction of knowledge, it is what the learner does that is important not what the teacher does. This theory of learning is thus student-centered and contrasts with a more teacher-centered approach in which knowledge is thought to be “transmitted” to the student which places the student in a passive role of “receiver”.
Alignment – Course learning outcomes (LO), course assessments, learning activities, and course materials are all aligned. Biggs et al. (2022, p. 94) quote Shuell to illustrate the point: “…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 these outcomes…what the student does is more important than what the teacher does” (Shuell, 1986, p. 429).
The course learning outcomes specify the activity (using a cognitive action verb from Bloom’s Taxonomy) that the students should engage in, in relation to specific content and context, in order to achieve the intended course outcome.
The course assessment tasks measure student attainment of the course LOs by requiring students to demonstrate performance of a behaviour which is defined by a similar cognitive action verb to the verb in the LO. For example, if the course learning outcome requires students to analyze some content, then you would expect the corresponding assessment task to be some sort of analysis. If the course learning outcome requires students to evaluate something, then the corresponding assessment task should involve students identifying the strengths and weaknesses of something or selecting the most appropriate strategy among several presented and then justifying their choice.
The course learning activities should be designed, and the course content specified in ways to prepare students to perform well on the assessment tasks. The teacher’s responsibility is to set up a learning environment that encourages students to engage in the learning activities that provide the practice they need for the assessment task.
When the same or a similar cognitive action verb is specified in the course LO’s, tested in the course assessment, and carried out by students during course learning activities, then the course is fully aligned.
What is the value of CA? Why does it matter?
Biggs et al. (2022, pp. 96-97) draw attention to three advantages of aligning course LOs, assessment tasks and learning activities and content:
- CA systematizes the change in students’ behaviour that the teacher wants to bring about but is open-ended enough to allow for unintended outcomes to emerge, which may “surprise” the teacher.
- “Constructively aligned teaching is more likely to be effective than unaligned teaching because there is maximum consistency throughout the system….All components in the system address the same agenda and support each other” (p. 96).
- “The students are entrapped in this web of consistency from which they cannot escape without learning (Cowan, 2004, cited in Biggs et al., 2022, p. 94). CA optimizes the likelihood that students will engage in appropriate learning activities, and not ‘escape’ by engaging in inappropriate learning activities which may lead to ‘surface’ as opposed to ‘deep’ learning.
How does CA encourage student engagement?
While for teachers the course learning outcomes are the defining feature of a course, for students the immediate concern are the assessment tasks. Students are focused on getting good grades, passing courses, and progressing through the semesters. They may have some appreciation about why a particular course or topic may be important for their professional futures, but in the short term, students will focus on passing the course. If something is assessed, students will work towards learning it, if content is not assessed, students will not focus on it. Biggs et al. (2022, p. 188) give more detail about the way that assessment methods can influence learning and teaching (the ‘backwash’ effect). The key point is that “backwash can work positively by encouraging appropriate learning when the assessment is aligned to what the students should be learning” (p.188). Biggs et al. illustrate the difference in perspective between teachers and students in this way:
The authors explain that from the teacher’s perspective, the assessment is at the end of the learning path. In contrast, from the students’ perspective, the assessment is at the beginning, it is the first element they concentrate on and any work they carry out has as its objective to pass the assessment. So, if the learning outcomes are embedded in the assessment tasks (represented by the up and down arrow) “the teaching activities of the teacher and the learning activities of the student are both aligned towards achieving the same goal. In preparing for the assessments, students will be learning the intended outcomes” (p.188-189). The students’ motivation to pass the assessments is being used to engage them in achieving the course learning outcomes.
Constructive alignment forms the base of the GIHE approach to teaching, learning and assessment.
Constructive Alignment contains two complementary concepts:
Constructive – learners integrate new information and build new knowledge through their own activity.
Alignment – the course learning outcomes, assessment tasks, learning activities and learning material are all directly connected and reinforce each other: course learning outcomes are clearly defined, the course assessment tasks measure student attainment of the learning outcomes and course learning activities are designed to prepare students to perform well in the assessments.
Biggs, J., Tang, C., & Kennedy, G. (2022). Teaching for quality learning at university (5th ed.). McGraw Hill.