What is “Constructive Alignment” and why do we need it?

Over the past few weeks, I have been pretty busy fulfilling my teaching duties. As I haven’t done much researching, I won’t talk about research today, but about “Constructive Alignment”, which is an approach for planning lectures, seminars and other courses.

The constructive alignment process consists of three steps:

  1. Defining the learning targets
  2. Planning the examination
  3. Planning the course

But wait a second, why does planning the course appear as the last step in this process?

I will come back to this questions later. First, let me describe what happens in these three steps in a bit more detail.

1. Defining the learning targets

According to constructive alignment, before starting to think about the course’s content, you should first define learning targets. You typically write them down in sentences like “At the end of the semester, students will be able to …”. It is important to include not only knowledge, but also skills in your learning targets. Of course, the students will have learned something about the topic, but it’s even better if they have also learned how to do something (e.g., how to write a good essay or how to give a presentation). These skills are actually what matters in the long run, because they generalize to other topics as well. A useful tool for defining learning targets is Bloom’s taxonomy which divides cognitive skills into six levels of increasing difficulty: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating.

2. Planning the examination

After having decided on the desired outcomes, it is now time to think about the examination. Already? Yes, already. Given the learning targets, you should now think about ways in which students can prove that they have achieved these goals. How can you check whether they have understood the course’s contents? How can you test whether they are able to give a good presentation? Different learning targets will lead to different forms of examination. A written exam might for instance not be a good way to check whether students have improved their presentation skills. After having decided which type(s) of examination to use, you then should decide on concrete criteria used for evaluating and grading.

3. Planning the course

Finally, after having defined learning targets and after having planned the examination, you are allowed to plan your course. This planning step is based on the two previous ones and guided by the following question: “What do I need to do in my course in order to ensure that students will achieve the learning targets and get a good grade in the examination?” For instance, if one of your learning targets is to improve your students’ presentation skills and if the examination consists therefore of an oral presentation, it might make sense to include some (ungraded) practice presentations in your course. That way, the students can gain some experience and get valuable feedback. Also a discussion about good presentation styles would certainly help students to get better grades in the examination. So when planning the course, you should not focus on “what do I want to do?” but on “what do the students need?”.

So what?

Why should we do things this way? I assume that most lecturers (including myself a year ago) plan their courses in the opposite way: They first define which topics will be covered and think about an exam afterwards. Most lecturers probably don’t think about learning targets at all, and if they do, probably only briefly.

If we however start with the learning targets, we put the students’ learning progress in the center of attention: How will they profit from attending this course? What will they have learned? What will they be able to do afterwards that they couldn’t before?

Moreover, by thinking about the examination before thinking about the structure and concrete contents of the course, we can make sure that the examination really checks whether the learning targets have been reached. Also, we can arrange our course in such a way, that it actively supports the students in working towards the learning targets.

Of course, this approach requires additional time and work in the preparation process. However, I think that by putting the learning targets into focus, it can help us to improve our teaching skills, such that our courses becomes more valuable for the students. And in the end, that’s what matters.

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