Understanding constructive alignment

What is alignment?

Alignment is a term used to refer to relationship between what we want students to be capable of, what they actually become capable of during a paper, and the way in which those capabilities are measured.

A teacher of a paper wants her students to be able to ride a unicycle when they complete it.  Consider two situations:

Option A Option B
the class time involves teaching about the components of unicycle assembly the class time involves teaching about the basics of technique, an understanding of centres of rotation, how they are relevant to riding, and some things to watch out for while doing so
the coursework of the paper involves writing an essay about the history of unicycles the coursework of the paper involves tutors demonstrating riding techniques, and students give peer feedback on each other’s efforts in a practical situation with reference to the elements of technique taught in class
the final grade is based on an exam wherein the student is required to draw a picture of a unicycle the final grade is based on the students’ ability to navigate a simple obstacle course while riding a unicycle

We as teachers need to focus on what we want students to be able to do at the end of the paper.  And that ability – in this case, the actual riding of a unicycle – is what the rest of the paper is built around.  From here, we can work backwards to design appropriate assessments to measure that thing we care about, to design activities which will give students practice and formative feedback in developing that thing, and finally (or firstly?) designing the teaching of any background theory or concepts needed.

What is constructivism?

Constructivism is the idea that understanding is something which students cannot be given but must construct for themselves.

Imagine a wall, with the student on one side and the teacher on the other.  Both are given a pile of cogs, wheels, connectors, etc.  The student looks at the pile and thinks, “Clearly, this is a pile of junk,” whereas the teacher looks at the pile and thinks, “Clearly, this is an antique clock which has just requires a little assembly.”  The teacher cannot give the student the entire clock through the wall, they cannot give the student the skills needed, they cannot give the understanding.  All that can pass through the wall is communication.  The teacher’s job is to communicate what actions the student must do in order that they – the student – can construct their own understanding, skills, and finally, the clock.

Thus, the students’ actions are central to the way in which learning happens: what the student is doing is the important thing.  When the assessments or measurements of the students’ final performance are also in harmony with these actions, we arrive at constructive alignment.

Constructive alignment is the combination of constructivism theory with alignment in assessments and activities, as in the example above.

How does Compass support constructive alignment?

In addition to the tools for programme planning, Compass includes a planning toolkit specifically for individual papers which is based around the principles of constructive alignment.  It’s not necessary to use the toolkit each time you teach a paper (there are more simplified paper management tools for that) but it does help to make sure that the assessments, activities, and access skills are appropriately aligned and supported when you first teach a paper, or when you want to redesign it.

Now that we understand alignment, let’s move on to understanding assessments, activities and access skills.