Constructive alignment

Or: Think first about what you want students to be able to do, then about what they need to learn in order to do it.

One term that I’ve noticed I am referring to in blog posts without ever having actually talked about what I mean by it is “constructive alignment”. It is the most fundamental idea underlying my work, so this post is about what I mean by “constructive alignment”.

What is constructive alignment?

Constructive alignment focusses on what students will be able to do after having attended a class or course, and on how you can design assessment to make sure to measure whether they now are able to do, and on how to design your teaching to help them do.

Constructive alignment originally goes back to Biggs and Tang, and here is a nice guide by those authors. My own use of the term differs slightly, because this is how we use it at work and I want to stay consistent with that.

Why do constructive alignment?

At a day and age where factual knowledge increases exponentially, it is important to not focus too much on conveying information, but more on helping students develop skills to do something with all that information.

Also, the “constructive” in “constructive alignment” refers to the understanding that you cannot funnel meaning from a book or your brain into the students’ brains, but that students have to construct their own meaning. So rather than focussing on telling them exactly what you are thinking and why, the idea is to have them think on their own, supported by activities you designed to guide them in the right direction.

How can you implement the idea of constructive alignment in your teaching?

The most important step, in my opinion, is to recognize that you need to think about skills you want students to have at the end of your course rather than topics you want to have talked about. Of course, there is a lot of factual knowledge that everybody needs to learn regardless. But if you think about it, often it is more important that students recognize the kind of problem they are dealing with and then look up the exact value of a constant or form of a solver, than knowing the constants and solvers by heart and not being able to apply them correctly. Because just because you have talked about something in your lecture does not mean that students have understood it and are able to apply it.

So in a first step, the learning goals are defined. Then, you think about how you could actually measure whether students have reached those goals (this is the point where you notice that “differential equations” are not a good learning goal, whereas “solving DEs”, “formulating DEs”, “classify different kinds of DEs” are a lot better, because they already give you an indication of how you can assess whether the goal has been met). And then from your assessment, you think about how you will prepare your students for the assessment, i.e. what teaching methods you will need to use and what materials should be provided.

To me, the idea of constructive alignment makes a lot of sense. But it does seem weird to not start out by gathering all the important slides you want to show and then come up with a story to connect them (or isn’t that how you prepare your lectures?) but to rather take the path indicated above. However, it does get easier over time, especially once you start getting the feedback that students do have better conceptual understanding and higher skill levels than before. So maybe give it a try?

(As with everything – you don’t have to jump in head first if you are hesitant. Try it out for one particular session and see how it goes! And then as you get bolder, you can design a whole course this way, and maybe eventually even the curriculum. It’s worth it!)

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