Constructive alignment

The concept of ‘constructive alignment’ underpins course and unit design at Victoria University. Constructive alignment, a term coined by John Biggs, is popular in curriculum design and has been embraced and practiced widely across the higher education sector.

What it constructive alignment?

Constructive alignment involves two principles:

  • a constructivist theory of learning, which recognises that ‘knowledge is constructed by the activities of the learner’ (Biggs, 2014, page 9) rather than being directly transferable from teacher to student
  • the alignment between the intended learning outcomes of the unit, the teaching/learning activities and the assessment tasks.

In constructive alignment we systematically align the teaching/learning activities, as well as the assessment tasks, to the intended learning outcomes. This is done by requiring the students to engage the learning activities required in the outcomes.

Biggs and Tang, 2011, p11

A constructively aligned curriculum is one in which all key aspects of the curriculum are consistent and supportive of each other. A unit that features genuine constructive alignment is clear about the intended learning outcomes and the embedded graduate capability. The assessment tasks link to the learning outcomes and graduate capabilities. Students know that by engaging in the learning and teaching activities, they will have the best chance to perform well in the assessment tasks.

Constructive alignment requires mapping the learning outcomes, assessments and graduate capabilities for each unit against all other units in a course. This mapping ensures that the unit learning outcomes align with the whole course learning outcomes.

All graduate capabilities need to be addressed across the course. Assessments are developmental and varied in nature across the course and they align to the learning outcomes. Therefore, changes to a unit may have an impact on the rest of the course.

Support for development and changes to course and unit design is available from the Centre for Collaborative Learning and Teaching’s Improving Learning and Teaching and Course Management and Quality Services teams.

Putting constructive alignment into practice

In course and unit design, we start with the course ‘learning outcomes’. These should be expressed in terms of the behaviours we want of students: expressing their fundamental knowledge and skills, and more importantly, being able to apply this knowledge.

Then we determine what assessment tasks will best assist the students to learn and measure the achievement of those outcomes. For example:

  • an essay or report
  • a portfolio of evidence or a journal
  • short answer questions or a quiz
  • a presentation or performance.

Decide which learning and teaching approaches will best support student learning. These may include:

  • role plays and group discussion
  • online discussion boards, reading and watching videos
  • observing an expert perform the skill, then practising, either in a real or simulated environment
  • a short answer written exercise
  • an open book test.

Select an appropriate graduate capability, using the four underpinning concepts to inform your choice. Align the selected graduate capability with the unit or course content and the assessment task. Students should be given feedback on the development of the graduate capability as part of their assessment.

The constructive alignment process is iterative and there is movement in all directions between the three main sections:

  • learning outcomes
  • teaching and learning experiences
  • assessment task.