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Desired Learning Outcomes and Constructive Alignment

After reading this post, you should be able to…

As Amanda has alluded to, the twilight of summer is upon us. Personally, I am not ready to accept this fact; however, wishful thinking does not change the reality that TA and TF assignments are right around the corner.

If you’re a seasoned grad student, chances are you have encountered learning outcomes within courses that you have TA’d or TF’d. In fact, if you’re an incoming grad student you have probably encountered learning outcomes in your undergrad classes. Not to date myself, but back in MY day we didn’t have ‘learning outcomes’ built into courses (at least at WLU); however, after taking SGS 901 and also instructing a course last year, I’ve come to appreciate their value.

In essence, learning outcomes lay out what a student should be able to do or know by the end of a lesson, unit, or course. Learning outcomes allow an instructor to breakdown complex processes into their component parts, have students practice these discrete tasks, and eventually consolidate these parts as a whole (i.e. critical writing, problem solving using models, etc.). If timely assessment is built into each discrete objective, this process can enhance learning, as students are able to identify which components require attention in order to improve on the task as a whole.

Well-written learning outcomes can be a powerful tool for students as they clearly communicate an instructor’s expectations of what learning should look like inside and outside of the classroom. For an instructor (and to a lesser extent, a TA), learning outcomes can be excellent guides for course design (teaching/learning activities, content selection, etc.) and assessment selection. In teaching pedagogy, this system is referred to as constructive alignment, which is an approach to teaching and learning that clearly articulates learning outcomes and aligns learning activities and assessment with these outcomes in a student-centric manner.

As John Biggs describes, constructive alignment can be broken down into two components:

The constructive component stipulates that the learner (the student) constructs meaning from an activity, and that the instructor’s role is to facilitate these learning experiences rather than force-feed information to a student.  As Biggs points out, teaching is a catalyst for learning, wherein a student’s engagement in an activity is key to their learning.

That being said, facilitating meaningful learning requires proper alignment of these constructs: meaningful learning requires both opportunities for engagement in a manner that is aligned with the desired learning outcomes and assessment that reflects learning outcomes and how students practiced.

Constructive Alignment Model:  Learning objectives guide the development of course material and assessment; however, these components are all dependent on the relative alignment to one another

Constructive Alignment Model: Learning outcomes guide the development of course material and assessment; however, these components are all dependent on proper alignment with one another. (Source: https://www.lehren.tum.de/en/topics/effective-teaching/success-factors-in-effective-teaching/constructive-alignment/)

The above model demonstrates the utility of using learning outcomes to determine teaching and assessment methods for a given topic. As a first-time instructor, I found that this model provided a solid foundation when determining course content, and guided the structure of how material would be taught and assessed.

If you have been or plan to be a university instructor and you have not heard of constructive alignment, I strongly recommend that you visit the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL) website and checkout the host of resources at your disposal. If you’re a TA, critically review your assigned course’s syllabus and determine if the course appears to be ‘aligned’. Adopting a critical perspective of courses that you TA may give you a greater understanding of why a course is set up a certain way and, if the opportunity presents itself, may also guide your own course development in the future.



Posted in All, General, New Students, Student Perspective Tagged with: , , ,
2 comments on “Desired Learning Outcomes and Constructive Alignment
  1. Colette says:

    Good one Jeremy and if you want to be in the know for all things new, then don’t wait to register for the Centre for Teaching & Learnings (CTL), Teaching Development Day on Wednesday 9th September. You can see the schedule for the day and how to register on the CTL website. http://www.queensu.ca/ctl/ps/programs/tdday.html

  2. Sharday says:

    This is so good, Jeremy. The phrase “constructive alignment” has been in my mind since SGS 901 (AKA my favourite course ever) but seeing it re-presented here makes it seem so much more manageable. The triangle diagram especially helps keep the pieces ordered together. Truly a useful guiding concept to reign in the complexity of teaching.

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