Constructive Alignment – a logical teaching theory

As long as we were in March, ‘April’ seemed a long way off.  I opened my folder this morning to realise that my theoretical account and lesson plan have to be drafted by 11 April, which is now not far away!  Time for some serious reading – or should I add, some more serious reading, since I did spend yesterday evening reading and then writing about learning contexts.

However, knowing about learning contexts is not enough – I need enough theory to be able to write a theoretical account.  I see my learning has been sneakily ‘constructively aligned’ behind my very back, since I can’t complete the assignment without doing the work, and I have to be actively involved in selecting the reading that will be most useful to me.  No spoonfeeding here, folks!

I began by reading John Biggs’ ‘Aligning Teaching for Constructing Learning’.  I now know about ILOs (Intended Learning Outcomes), the place of Assessment, and choosing TLAs (Teaching and Learning Activities) that will enable the students to learn what I intend them to learn, and demonstrate it so that I can assess they’ve learnt it.  I’ve also learned that it’s good for students to be actively involved in their own learning, rather than passively being fed information, which may not be absorbed and processed as effectively.  A student should not be a parrot, nor should they be able to pass an assessment merely by parroting.  Further reading on this topic filled me in on a few more details, including Biggs’ notion of ‘backwash’ – the tendency of students to learn what they think they’ll be assessed on.  (University College Dublin’s teaching paper, ‘Using Biggs’ Model of Constructive Alignment in Curriculum Design’, cites Biggs (2003) at this point – Teaching for Quality Learning at University.)  This is a clever idea, because I know myself from experience that we do tend to mug up what we think we’ll be tested on.  At one point in my early professional training, I learned and was able to reproduce pretty accurately, an entire lecture on bibliographic databases.  I saw this as tactical exam preparation – if I knew my facts and could parrot them, then I was sure to be able to answer the question – as indeed I did.  However, I see that from Biggs’ point of view, it would have been cleverer on the part of the examiners to have forced me to think a bit more, rather than regurgitating what I’d heard in a lecture.

I have a tendency to persist in reading up a subject, when in reality I have probably absorbed what I need to know.  I did it again!  I’ve read ‘Constructive Alignment – and why it is important to the learning process’ (2004, the third article downloaded from Higher Education Academy Resources), which includes an illuminating concept map about Curriculum Design Process, and a table adapted from Biggs (2003), showing a constructively aligned assessment scheme.  However, I also glanced at an abstract for another paper in the Higher Education Academy Resources, which suggests that not all educators concur entirely with Biggs’ theories.  Loretta M. Jervis and Les Jervis’ article, ‘What is the Constructivism in Constructive Alignment?) (2005) appears to suggest that constructivism and instructional alignment don’t always sit comfortably together.  With more reading to do, I’ve decided not to follow this thread, but simply to note that Biggs’ influential theories clearly aren’t universally accepted in their entirety.

Old habits die hard – I am keeping a note of all reading done, together with their hyperlinks, on my own Resources page on this blog.  You can’t keep a good bibliographer down – I am somewhat obsessive in trying to get as detailed and accurate a citation as possible. All in a good cause, though.  And in this case, it just illustrates one of the points I’ll making in the lesson I’m planning.  You have to be able to cite what you’ve read, and retrieve it again if necessary!

5 thoughts on “Constructive Alignment – a logical teaching theory”

  1. Karen, as you continue to digest your study of Biggs’ theory of constructive alignment, you might want to reflect more deeply on the significance of his thinking for your own teaching. How do you want to design your lesson plan to ensure that your students are actively involved in their own learning? What changes might you need to introduce to your accustomed teaching style to accommodate this? And how do these ideas impact on your own approach to learning?


  2. I agree with Mary here Karen about beginning to apply Biggs to your own practice. I’d encourage you to think it about your practice in the library. Your job here provides daily opportunities to support learners. The library is a learning context. What do you know about the things the music students are being asked to study? When they approach you for help, do you fully understand the context? What module are they working on? What are the learning outcomes fort his module? What is the assessment assignment or learning activity they are engaging with and how does this align to the learning outcomes? If you had a more indepth understanding of these things, could you better tailor the support you provide to individual students as the music librarian to make your teaching more constructively aligned? Finally what actions for change does this lead you too?

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  3. I do engage students in discussion where it’s appropriate, but I should perhaps explain the contexts in which most queries come to me, because there isn’t always an opportunity or necessity for me to do so. I’m aware this might sound defensive, but I think I need to describe the reality of the majority of student queries, so please take this as an explanation rather than a defence!

    To answer taking a broad view, although all queries are different, the most are, in rough order of frequency:-

    (1) finding a specific piece of music the student has been asked to study by their instrumental teacher – and although I engage them in discussion about ‘best edition’ where such a choice is even available, finding such a piece is not like sourcing material for an essay;

    (2) handling student requests for stock to be purchased or inter-library-loaned, where I ask for a head of department to sanction the request (again I can discuss ‘best edition’ if it’s something like a Bach or Beethoven piece where there will be plenty of choice, and also discuss whether they’ve made the most appropriate choice of literature for a written piece of work, however I am not part of the learning transaction if the student is requesting, for example, a saxophone piece, because it’s not for me to enquire if it’s the best piece for them and there will only be one edition);

    (3) explaining how to access and exploit electronic resources, where it’s a practical question of ensuring the student understands how to do the required task;

    (4) helping find resources to answer an essay question, write a programme note, or source material for a dissertation. In this case, I will always ask questions about the context – this is something librarians always do. (I do have a broad general musical background to inform me, with additional specialisms on top of this, so I am generally comfortable with the subject matter, but what I don’t know, obviously I can find out.)

    I agree it’s worth finding out which module the essay is in connection with. Finding out about the learning outcomes is a bit trickier when you have an anxious student in front of you; what they want is to be *given* the information they need, and trying to involve them in the question analysis and subsequent search is the key priority – they want to go away with something to work on, and so there isn’t much opportunity to find out what their tutor’s intention of a learning outcome actually should be. Whether there is a better way of finding out, is something I’ll have to think about. Asking the student to wait while you look up the course handbook to find the learning outcomes for a particular assignment, would probably lead to impatient pen-tapping or fidgeting at the desk!! (Information requests are regularly left until the last moment, and there aren’t always hats and white rabbits to hand … a thought that often occurs to me, but I manage not to voice!)

    If we’re shown the essay question, and can find out which year the student is in, this is a good start. (Even then, one can be misled! Recently I spent a long time sourcing material for what the student described as an ‘essay’ – for which I was shown a task sheet – only to discover that these were quick-fire questions and not an essay at all!)

    This sort of query is always the most enjoyable, because one is actually engaging with the students on a deeper level than, ‘You want this? Let’s see if we have it/ Shall we double-check the catalogue for you – how did you search?/ Shall we recall it?/ We haven’t got it stock, but we can get it in for you.’ The start of the query is establishing what the student understands is required of them, and what they think they need to complete the task.

    We routinely ensure all course reading list materials are in the library and appropriately labelled short loan or reference according to the tutors’ preferences, and there are embedded Moodle links to live lists of such books, so that takes care of quite a bit of the day-to-day work. Obviously, if a query reveals a gap in provision, it is addressed at that point – for example, we didn’t know we needed more about songs sung at Scottish football matches until the dissertation project was chosen!


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