How can constructive alignment be used in the classroom?

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This article was written for SecEd magazine and was first published in September 2015. You can read the original here. Read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here

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How students learn

In How People Learn by Bransford, Brown and Cocking (2000), the authors assimilate a range of research on learners and learning and summarise three key findings which have strong implications for how we teach. These findings are as follows:

First, they argue that students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp any new concepts or information that is taught, or they may remember them for the purposes of a test but then revert to their preconceptions when outside the classroom.

Second, in order to develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and organise knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.

Third, they argue that a meta-cognitive approach to instruction can help students learn to take greater control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them.

So what are the implications of these findings for teachers and how we teach? Bransford et al argue that, in response to these findings, teachers should do the following:

First, teachers should draw out and work with the pre-existing understandings that their students bring with them. Teachers must actively inquire into students’ thinking, creating classroom tasks and conditions under which student thinking can be revealed.

The role of assessment must also be expanded beyond the traditional concept of testing. The use of formative assessment, for example, helps make students’ thinking visible to themselves, their peers, and their teacher. Assessment, in this sense, becomes a means of learning, not simply a means of measuring.

Second, teachers should teach less subject matter but teach the topics they do cover in greater depth, providing several examples in which the same concept is at work, providing a firm foundation of factual knowledge. In other words, superficial coverage of all topics in a subject area (which is common practice because teachers feel the need to “get through” the curriculum), must be replaced with in-depth coverage of fewer topics that allows key concepts in that discipline to be fully understood.

In order to cover subject content in greater depth, teachers must themselves have experience of in-depth study of their subject. Any assessment for the purposes of accountability (such as national league tables and Ofsted) must improve in order to test deep understanding rather than surface knowledge.

Third, the teaching of meta-cognitive skills should be integrated into the curriculum and this must be done in a variety of subject areas because the type of monitoring required will vary in each. The integration of meta-cognitive instruction with discipline-based learning can also enhance student achievement and develop students’ ability to learn independently.

By doing these three things, teachers can help their students to become experts.

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The nature of expertise

Experts’ abilities to reason and solve problems depend on well-organised knowledge that affects what they notice and how they represent problems.

According to deGroot (1965), experts have the ability to see patterns of meaningful information and, as such, can begin problem-solving at a higher level. Pattern-recognition is an important strategy for helping students to develop confidence and competence. Experts first seek to develop an understanding of problems, and this often involves thinking in terms of core concepts or big ideas.

Curricula that focus on developing students’ breadth of knowledge can prevent the effective organisation of knowledge because there is not enough time to learn anything in-depth. However, curriculum instruction that enables students to see various models of how experts organise and solve problems prove very helpful.

According to Whitehead (1929), knowledge must be “conditionalised” in order to be retrieved when it is needed; otherwise, it remains inert. However, many designs for curriculum instruction and assessment practices fail to emphasise the importance of conditionalised learning. For example, texts often present facts and formulas with little attention to helping students learn the conditions under which they may be most useful. Many assessments measure only factual knowledge and never ask whether students know when, where and why to use that knowledge.

Another important characteristic of expertise is the ability to retrieve relevant knowledge in a manner that is relatively effortless. According to Beck et al (1989), instruction that focuses solely on accuracy does not necessarily help students develop fluency.

The ability to monitor one’s approach to problem-solving – to be meta-cognitive – is an important aspect of the expert’s competence. Experts step back from their first, over-simplistic interpretation of a problem or situation and question their own knowledge and whether or not it is relevant.

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Constructive alignment

So, in order to help students become experts, we need to draw out and work with the pre-existing understanding they bring with them. This means actively inquiring into students’ thinking, and creating classroom tasks and conditions under which student thinking can be revealed.

We also need to teach less subject matter but do so in greater depth, providing many examples in which the same concept is at work and by so doing proffer a firm foundation of factual knowledge. And we need to teach meta-cognitive skills in order to enhance student achievement and develop students’ ability to learn independently.

One practical means of doing this is to use constructive alignment. According to Biggs and Tang (2011), constructive alignment is a principle used for devising teaching and learning activities, as well as assessment tasks, that directly address the intended learning outcomes. According to Biggs, there are two basic concepts behind constructive alignment:

Learners construct meaning from what they do to learn. This concept derives from cognitive psychology and constructivist theory, and recognises the importance of linking new material to concepts and experiences in the learner’s memory, as well as extrapolating that material to possible future contexts – connecting the learning, showing the bigger picture.

The teacher makes a deliberate alignment between the planned learning activities and the learning outcomes. This is a conscious effort to provide the learner with a clearly defined goal, a well-designed learning activity that is appropriate for the task, and well-designed assessment criteria for giving feedback to the learner once they’ve completed that task.

Writing on his website, Biggs says: “In my last year of teaching, it suddenly struck me how silly it was to give the usual exam or final assignment, in which my students tell me what I had told them about applying psychology to education.

“Rather, they should be telling me how they themselves could apply what psychology they knew to improve their teaching decisions – that was the underlying intended outcome of the course. Thus was constructive alignment born.”

In constructive alignment, Biggs explains, we start with the outcomes we want students to learn, and then align teaching and assessment to those outcomes. The outcome statements contain a learning activity, a verb, that students need to perform in order to achieve the outcome, such as “apply the theory of…”, or “explain the concept of…”. In other words, the verb tells students what relevant learning activities they need to undertake in order to attain the intended learning outcome.

“Learning is constructed by what activities the students carry out; learning is about what they do, not about what we teachers do,” writes Biggs. Likewise, assessment is about how well students achieve the intended outcomes, not about how well they report back to us what we have told them. This fits perfectly with the research by Bransford et al outlined above.

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The SOLO taxonomy

Constructive alignment also marries well with the SOLO taxonomy. SOLO stands for “structure of observed learning outcomes” and is a concept devised by John Biggs and Kevin Collis in 1982 to describe levels of increasing complexity in students’ understanding. The SOLO taxonomy helps to map levels of understanding that can be built into intended learning outcomes and create assessment criteria or rubrics. It consists of five levels of understanding:

  1. Pre-structural: a student hasn’t understood the point and offers a simple – incorrect – response. A student at the pre-structural stage will usually respond with “I don’t understand”.
  2. Uni-structural: a student’s response only focuses on one relevant aspect. A student at the uni-structural stage might give a response such as “I have some understanding of this topic”.
  3. Multi-structural: here, a student’s response focuses on several relevant aspects but these are treated independently of each other. Assessment at this level is primarily quantitative. A student at the multi-structural stage might give a response such as “I know a few things about this topic”.
  4. Relational: Here, the different aspects seen at the multi-structural level have become integrated to form a coherent whole. At this level, a student’s understanding moves from quantitative to qualitative in that the different aspects are linked and integrated and now contribute to a deeper understanding of the whole. A student at the relational stage might give a response such as “I can see the connections between the information”.
  5. Extended abstract: the integrated whole is now conceptualised at a higher level of abstraction. According to Hook and Mills (2011), the new understanding that emerges at the extended abstract level is “rethought” at another conceptual level, looked at in a new way, and used as the basis for prediction, generalisation, reflection, or creation of new understanding. A student at the extended abstract stage might give a response such as: “By reflecting and evaluating on my learning, I am able to look at the bigger picture and link lots of different ideas together.”

As students move up the five levels, their understanding grows from surface to deep to conceptual. The SOLO taxonomy also helps develop a growth mindset because students come to understand that declarative and functioning learning outcomes are the result of effort and the use of effective strategies rather than the result of innate ability.

Students also come to develop meta-cognitive skills because, with SOLO, they are motivated to monitor their own progress and to make decisions on their next steps.

SOLO requires students to think about the strengths and weaknesses in their own thinking when they are learning and to make thoughtful decisions on what to do next. Students can use SOLO levels to answer questions such as: what am I learning? How is it going? What do I do next?

As such, SOLO can help us to respond to the three findings about learners and learning with which I started this article, namely: we can help students to grasp new concepts or information; we can help students to develop a deep foundation of factual knowledge, to understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and to organise knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application; and we can help students to develop meta-cognition and, by so doing, to take greater control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them.

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(C) M J Bromley 2015

(C) M J Bromley 2015

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5 responses to “How can constructive alignment be used in the classroom?

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