Tag Archives: constructive alignment

The story of Robert and Susan (Biggs, 1999)

I attended iEarth’s GeoLearning Forum today and yesterday, and had a lot of great conversations with amazing students from the four iEarth institutions: Universities of Bergen, Oslo, Tromsø, and UNIS. One student, Sverre, told me about having read articles on learning and teaching as part of a normal geoscience class (how awesome is that? Hat tip to Bjarte!), and one of those articles was “the story of Robert and Susan”. Or: “What the student does: teaching for enhanced learning” (Biggs, 1999).

That article describes two different types of students: Susan, who learns well from traditional university teaching, i.e. lectures and exercises, and Robert, who does not. Susan has a deep approach to learning: She comes to class prepared and with her own questions that help her integrate what she learned with what she already knows and what she wants to learn to reach her academic and career goals. Robert, on the other hand, is not as invested in the subject and attends university to obtain a degree that he needs for a job. He has a surface approach to learning: He collects individual bricks and delivers them at the exam. Susan does really well on the exam, Robert does not. Or at least, that is the situation when both are taught in a conventional way. But there are ways to get Robert to learn similarly well as Susan.

The first step is that their teachers need to understand that Susan and Robert’s performance are not inherent in their personalities, but that they as teachers can influence how well both learn. For that, there need to be clear learning objectives, and it needs to be clear how the learning objectives and the assessment correspond. Also, students need to want to learn: ““Motivation” is a product of good teaching, not its prerequisite.” Additionally, students need to have the opportunity to focus on the task without feeling the pressure to put all their focus on passing the test. And they need to be able to collaborate with their peers and teachers.

Teachers usually come to that understanding by undergoing two developmental steps.

Initially, many teachers believe that what Robert and Susan do is determined by who they are. Once teachers recognise this is not the case, they commonly believe that what Robert and Susan do mainly depends on how well the teacher taught (which often results in a focus on class management). But upon reflecting on that, teachers recognise that learning depends on what activities students actually do when they learn.

When teachers have reached that step, they employ what is called “backwards design” or “constuctive alignment”: First, they consider what the learning outcomes are; what students should be able to DO after instruction. Then, building on that, the teacher comes up with assessments that check whether or not, or to what extent, students are able to do it. And lastly, the teacher develops learning activities in which students learn and practice exactly what they will later do on the exam.

Constructive alignment of a course can happen independently of the methods used in that course, but there are methods that make it particularly easy to achieve constructive alignment: using problem-based learning or a learning portfolio.

In constructively aligned courses, Robert is learning in much the same ways as Susan already did in conventional teaching: He is integrating new knowledge with what he knew before, he asks questions that help him connect new ideas with old ones, he evaluates information, does all the higher-level thinking, because the tasks in class require them. This means that the gap between Robert and Susan gets smaller and smaller, and that we are teaching both equally well. And should that not always be our goal?

I really enjoyed re-discovering this article, thanks, Sverre!

John Biggs (1999) What the Student Does: teaching for enhanced learning, Higher Education Research & Development, 18:1, 57-75, DOI: 10.1080/0729436990180105

Flipping the classroom

How can we make sure students actually prepare for the next session?

This post is a work-in-progress – I am working on flipping my first ever class, and this is a collection of my thoughts on the matter which I thought might be interesting to others, too. But I will definitely come back to the topic later once I have more experiences! But let’s get started:

What is a flipped classroom?

If you are following discussions in higher education, you’ve certainly come across the idea of a “flipped classroom”. What it means in a nutshell is that anything that takes a lot of studying and practicing, but isn’t particularly hard, is moved out of the classroom, so that class time can be used on difficult tasks where students need the instructor’s help. So instead of gathering for content transfer, people gather for things you need to gather for: interactions and discussions.

Why flip your class?

There are many good reasons for flipping your class. In no particular order:

  • face-to-face class time is typically limited to 2 to 4 hours per week, so in order to make the best use of it, students should make the most of having an expert present
  • most parts of a typical lecture are basically the same as listening to any random person read from a script on a topic. Yes, of course the typical lecturer comments spontaneously on occasion, but compared to “reading time”, those are very short moments, few and far between
  • the difference between passively listening to a lecture and passively listen to a video of a lecture is not very large (provided the video has good quality)
  • “learning facts” is not really difficult. Making sense is. So this is where the instructor should be supporting the students (for example by giving them the opportunity to discuss during a lecture)

How do you flip your class?

So now everybody is talking about flipping their classes. But how do you actually do it?

We are currently working on the first course to be completely flipped, and here are some concerns we have and some ideas I’ve either heard of somewhere or had myself. I’ll let you know how well they worked after we’ve actually tried…

  • How do we make sure students come to class prepared?

This seems to be the biggest worry, which I completely understand. Interestingly, everybody who has tried flipping their class says that it is actually not an issue: Students do realize that if they are not prepared, they won’t gain anything from coming to class. So they come prepared.

But of course there are strategies that can be implemented in order to feel more secure in the beginning:

– Make sure every student gets the opportunity to ask their questions on the topic so students recognize the value of using that time for their own progression.

– Peer pressure. If students work in fixed groups throughout the whole course, group dynamics will tend to make sure everybody pulls their weight.

– Implement a control system: Make pre-class tests grade-relevant or award bonus points.

  • How do I decide which materials the students should be studying in preparation for my class?

I really like this question, because I’ve never been asked this for a regular lecture! Even though, of course, this question should always be asked. I think, the answer in this case is fairly easy. You know what kind of activity you will want to do during the class. Have students discuss a certain problem? Then they will have read about that problem beforehand. Apply a method to a new type of problem? Then they should have practiced applying that method to the “regular” type of problem beforehand. Talk about a new topic in a foreign language? Then they need to study the relevant technical terms before coming to class.

Basically, we need to figure out what we want students to be able to do once they are in class, and from there we can go to what information they need in order to do it, and provide that information (see my post on constructive alignment).

  • But what if I don’t want videos of my face floating about the internet?

While videos seem to be the preferred medium for content-delivery outside of a flipped classroom, this does not mean that your face has to be visible. You could use screen casts, where you show your slides and add your voice, or you could use other people’s videos which you edit together or ensemble to a playlist, or you could use podcasts or written materials instead of videos. Or you could put your videos on a protected learning management system, but of course then there is no guarantee then that the materials won’t end up on the open internet eventually.

And this is where I am currently at when it comes to flipping a class. I’ll get back to you once we’ve actually tried!

P.S.: Here is a very interesting blog post by Ryan Kilcullen, who discusses a flipped class from a student’s perspective. Make sure to also read the great comments on that post!

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!)

How to plan a course from scratch

Where do I even start???
A very helpful concept, which is completely contrary to how most people approach course planning, is “backward design”. Instead of looking at all the cool experiments, the awesome, fun materials, the best case studies, we first look at the learning outcomes we want to achieve with our course. From those learning outcomes, we think about how we could determine whether they have actually been met (the assessment) and only then we look at how we can convey what students need to learn in order to meet the learning outcomes.
In practice that means that with every new course, the first step is to think about why are we teaching this course? What will students be able to do, and what attitudes will they have once they have participated in our course?
Imagine I were to plan a summer camp on oceanography for teen-aged kids. It would of course be most important that they enjoy their summer holiday, but once that is taken care of, there are a couple of things I would want them to take away from their week with me. As you’ve probably heard about a million times by now, learning outcomes are commonly written from the students’ point of view, using active, measurable verbs. So learning outcomes for that summer camp could look something like this:

Learning outcomes for an oceanography summer camp with teen-aged participants

After participating, students are able to
  1. give a broad overview over the field of ocean sciences to a lay audience, demonstrate practical applications of oceanography and illustrate their relevance to our lives;
  2. develop simple experiments following the scientific method, assess their validity with respect to answering a specific question and decide on further steps;
  3. develop joint questions and solutions in heterogeneous teams and reflect on team collaboration and their own contribution towards it; and
  4. perform independently and assess their own state of learning with the aid of the instructors.
Looking at those learning outcomes, you might notice that those cover all four groups of competences: 1 and 2 are professional competences (knowledge and skills, respectively) and 3 and 4 are personal competences (social competence and self-reliance). You might also notice that I am dealing with fairly high skill levels here: In Bloom’s classification, the knowledge learning outcomes are around level 2 and 3, the skills are even as high as Bloom-level 5 and 6. The personal competencies are more difficult to place in the Bloom categories, but are also on the high end.
Ambitious goals for a week with teenagers, you say? Yes, true. But I am really not interested in just conveying factual knowledge, and as soon as things become interesting, they also become more difficult. Plus note that following the conventions, I only mention the highest Bloom-level learning outcomes – in order to illustrate something (i.e. Bloom-level 3 “application”), I will need to have the factual knowledge (level 1) and also have understood it (level 2).

Assessment of the learning outcome

Obviously I don’t want to turn my summer camp into a permanent assessment of skills (or at least not the way that sounds to most people) – the main aim is still that participants have a good summer. But still it is nice to have some part of assessment included, both for myself so I know whether I achieved what I wanted to achieve, and for the participants so they realize how much they have learned in just one week. I have cleverly included “assess their own state of learning with the aid of the instructors” as one of the learning outcomes, but what would that look like in practice?
As you can see from my learning outcomes, the whole summer camp is about working in teams on understanding how the ocean works, and presenting that to a lay audience (so probably the parents when they come to collect the kids, or other guests at the camp). So a good assessment would be to have them do just that: Present an experiment that they developed themselves, in a team, to an audience and explain what it is all about. Since this is a summer camp, this is probably about the extent of the assessment I would go to, but knowing how I like to function as an instructor, there will be a lot of formative feedback along the way on all four learning outcomes.

Determining the instructional method

So now to the part that people usually start with: Finding an instructional method to prepare students for the assessment to make sure they take away from the course what I want them to take away.
It makes sense to only assess what the participants had a chance to practice before, so we should be practicing working in groups on developing experiments and presenting them. This means our course plan should look something like this (This is a half-day raster. Not mentioned here are the “purely fun” activities like the afternoon at the beach, the canoeing trips, the BBQ, etc, but the schedule below is flexible enough to fit in all of those weather-dependent activities, which are currently indicated by empty “-“s):

Course plan:

Day 1
– Arrive at camp. Get to know everybody. Rules & boundary conditions.

Day 2
– What is so exciting about the ocean? Collect questions participants are interested in.
– Introduction to the scientific method. How do scientists learn about the world? Melting ice cubes experiment to practice the process as well as learning to write protocols.
Day 3
– Develop own questions and experiments to answer them.
Day 4
– Conduct experiment
– Conduct experiment
Day 5
– Analyze and interpret data
Day 6
– Prepare presentation of results.
Day 7
– Present everything to parents & everybody else interested.
So there we go! Coming up with all of this and writing it down took me maybe one hour, and we already have a pretty good idea of what that course might look like. Of course, the course planning isn’t done. In future posts, we will look at individual units and see how learning outcomes are reflected in the activities, and we will likely enter into an iterative process which will change our initial plan. But such is life :-)
P.S.: So why, on this blog, do I keep talking about how awesome experiments are, and how we can use them for almost any class, and with any audience, in any setting? Shouldn’t I be talking about the learning outcomes first, and then the assessment, and only then the teaching methods (i.e. the experiments)? Yes. Totally. But, in my defense, even though I don’t always make them explicit on this blog, I know what my underlying learning goals are. But I’ll try to do better and make them more explicit on here in the future!

On purpose and aim of hands-on experiments.

Why it is important to make clear the purpose of experiments in teaching.

As you all know by now, I am a big fan of hands-on experiments in teaching. One reason is that I enjoy running the experiments. Another is that students generally enjoy running experiments. And the third is that I believe that hands-on experiments offer learning opportunities that cannot be replaced by any other form of teaching, and that are a valuable and necessary part of any science and engineering education.

All the more reason to pay close attention when colleagues say that they don’t see the value in letting students do experiments themselves. In the paper “What is the purpose of this experiment? Or can students learn something from doing experiments?” Hart et al. (2000) state that despite of many historical claims of the value of lab work in schools, research often doesn’t support the expectation that lab work leads to meaningful learning. They give many reasons that can prevent students from actually learning in lab work settings, for example that students are, in those settings, mainly concerned with the completion of the task at hand, which can overwhelm any serious learning possibilities. In the same vein, lab experiments can lead to a cognitive overload because there are so many things to recall at the same time. Most importantly, the authors state that students often fail to relate the hands-on experiments to the other aspects of their learning.

The authors go then on and run a lab course which is not primarily aimed at conveying scientific knowledge, but which has as a main purpose that the students understand how the scientific process works. From that successful course, the authors come to the more optimistic conclusion that lab work can actually help learning – if not learning of science knowledge, so at least of other things.

The main point I am taking from the article is that the purpose of the lab work (the pedagogical reason why the teacher chose to run an experiment at that specific time) and the aim of the experiment (for example proving Newton’s law) are two very different things, that need to be communicated as two very different things. Students need to be aware that the process is the most important thing right now, or their learning to use a specific instrument, or whatever the purpose is, so they can focus and consciously engage in the learning process rather than focus on something meaningless (like finding the correct numbers to write in the lab report without understanding the process).

This article is very interesting to me, because I am currently trying to structure an article on the purpose of lab work at university. Apart from stressing again the importance of discussion in the process, I think we need to clearly distinguish two purposes of lab works: understanding of concepts and learning of methodology. And these two types need very different labs.

If the purpose of lab work is conceptual understanding, experiments need to be simple, easy to conduct and quick. That way students have the time for discussion and reflection that they need to actually learn and understand.

If the purpose, on the other hand, is to learn a methodology or how to handle an instrument, the experiments can be a lot more complex and time-consuming. But it is important that in this case it is clearly communicated that the purpose is to learn a new practical skill, otherwise students are likely to just go through the steps, completing them one after the other without actually engaging in the learning process.

And then in both cases it is of course important that the whole course is designed following the concept of constructive alignment: If the purpose of the experiment is to learn how to use the scientific method, this is what should be practiced during the course and also what should be evaluated in the end, regardless of whether the scientific method led to the correct results of any given experiment. If, however, the purpose is to learn to use an oscilloscope, this is what needs to be practiced and evaluated – not whether the students know any theory about oscilloscopes.

So what is the purpose of the experiments you are having your students run?

Concept maps

Drawing concept maps at the beginning, the middle and the end of the course.

Using concept maps in teaching is something that I first tried last year in both the GEOF130 and CMM31 courses. The idea is that coming in, students typically don’t have a very good overview over the topics and concepts that are going to be covered in an introductory oceanography class, but that that will hopefully change over the course of the course.

The reason for trying to use concept maps in teaching was twofold.

Firstly, I wanted students to see how they gradually learned more and more about oceanography, and how they started to see connections between concepts that initially did not seem related.

Secondly, I am a big concept- or mind-map drawer whenever I need to study complex topics. For every big examination at university, be it in physics or ship-building or oceanography, I have drawn concept maps (even though at the time I didn’t know they were called that, and I was using them intuitively to organize my thoughts, rather than purposefully using them as a method). So why not try if it helps students study, too?

So how did it work in practice? Students were asked to draw concept maps during the first lecture, during a lecture some time half-way through the course, and at the end of the course. I collected and scanned the concept maps (out of my own curiosity) but students always had access to them and were encouraged to work on them any time they wanted to. Concept maps got impressively complex fairly quickly, and students reported that the maps helped them both to see their progress and to organize their thoughts.

For one of the courses, I used the concept maps as basis for the oral examination in the end (which was a lot more time-intensive to prepare on my part than I had imagined, and I wouldn’t do that again) and for part of the grade. For that, I had written down a list of concepts that I thought they should definitely have learned in my course, and a list of connection between concepts that I thought were crucial, and I just counted them and ticked them off on a list. Again, this was a lot of work and I am not sure if I would do it again. Not because it was so much work, but because I am not sure if by grading basically whether students went through the table of contents of the textbook and made sure all the headings were included in the map, I am encouraging just that and nothing more (although I actually don’t think this is what happened in either of the courses, but still, thinking of constructive alignment, basically naming concepts is not a learning outcome I want from my class).

So in conclusion, I would definitely use concept maps in teaching again (Isn’t it impressive to see the maps develop?), but not as a tool for evaluation.

P.S.: A big THANK YOU! to the student whose concept maps I am showing here (and who wishes to remain anonymous, but kindly agreed to let me use them as an example).