Constructive Alignment

I was obsessed by Lego as a child, playing with it for days on end. I suspect this experience has been a guiding factor in my choice of career.

When my mother gave my sister and I our first Lego set, had she told us, ‘We would like to judge which of you is best at building Lego castles.’ By way of teaching she read the instructions aloud and asked us to repeat these instructions back to her. To assess our Castle building prowess they then quizzed us on our knowledge of the memorised instructions. This would be Criterion Referenced Assessment.

If she had alternatively shown us the picture of the castle on the box and said ‘I would like to build something that resembles this’ (intended learning outcome). Then informed us that ‘I would like you to experiment with putting blocks together’ (teacher managed, teaching and learning activity.) If she had then asked us to build our castles (assessment task) with my outcome being a 4 turreted structure and my sisters being a large round creation with a moat.  Following this feedback was given on our efforts and then we were asked  ‘What do you think you have learnt and how do you do you think you could improve next time’ this would have been Constructive Alignment.

Thankfully she opted for something closer to the second scenario.

There are 4 key elements to the designing a Constructive Aligned assessment.
1: The student needs to know they are going to get out of the activity
2: The student needs to have the capacity to be able complete the activity
3: The teaching and learning activity needs to be relevant to the assessment.
4: The feedback needs to be formative so the learner can reflect and improve upon
their practise.

This teaching methodology is more inclusive as it focuses less on competition and accommodates for a range of learning outcomes. The learner is in charge of there own education; the teacher role is to moderate and ensure that their TLAs, ALOs and ATs are all aligned.

In my own teaching practise I do not use a pure constructively aligned model but I do practise something similar that does adhere to some of the principles.

In the final year on the BA Fashion Womenwear the students first two terms are taken up with their Final Major Project, that involves them creating 6 complete outfits for the internal runway show, this is supported by a portfolio. For the final term they have to do A Negotiated Personal Development Brief, which is supposed to give further breadth to the students skill set to hopefully improve future employability.

They first pick which 1 of 5 groups they want to be a part of; each of the separate groups has a different specialisms. I am the tutor for the Fashion Image Making group.

The students are briefed to research an area of interest over the Easter Break. For the first session after they return we discuss as a group what each students specific area of interest is as a group and what their intended learning outcomes may be. These ILOs can be anything from a film, to a series of drawing or performance. They are informed that they need to document both their research and design development over the course of the 6-week project.  Each week the group reconvenes and discusses the development in an informal seminar environment and feedback is given.

By the end of the project the intended learning outcomes are often radically different to what was initially stated. In many instance the documentation of the process is the most exciting facet of the projects.

This project is perhaps the most unpredictable in regards to marking. We often find student shifting by 2 grade bands either way, whilst some students who may of felt that they had a skill which they could not directly apply to there strictly Fashion Design based projects relish the chance to explore their potential in a new area. In contrast some students who have been consistently strong throughout (when working in a more structured environment with clearly defined project requirements and assessment criteria) can become paralysed by the freedom, however the overall outcome is that the mean of grades is improved from the previous unit.

I watched the Brabrand and Anderson film, ‘Teaching teaching & understanding understanding’ on YouTube. This film did help clarify my understanding of the area. I think the reason for the films effectiveness (receiving 56 likes to 4 dislikes) is that it wraps up the ideas into a story. The use of narratives is often the most engaging way of conveying cognitively complex systems. I also really enjoyed the bubbling sexual tension between Robert and Susan.

9 thoughts on “Constructive Alignment

  1. Hi Thomas,

    Your approach to the explanation surprised me (in a positive way) and made me laugh! My brother was obsessed with lego too. In fact he still is – at 47! He now uses the skills he learnt early in life, as an architect.

    I think the analogy between playing with lego as a child and Constructive Alignment is great. By using this example and in this way, you keep your reader (me) engaged – entertained even – while still fulfilling what you set out to do: Explaining your understanding of Constructive Alignment, in a clear and simple way.

    You mention that there are 4 key elements to designing a Constructive Aligned assessment. I’m not sure I agree with the wording you have used in your second point: The student needs to have the capacity to be able to complete the activity. How do we know what a student’s capacity is? The way I understand it, it is about giving the student the space and time, with some information and activities that can help them realise their own potential. Of course our experience working with students over the years might inform us what we can expect of them and also if we know them well, but there should always be room for the unexpected, which you also say later: ‘This teaching methodology is more inclusive as it focuses less on competition and accommodates for a range of learning outcomes’.

    Perhaps you could have expanded on what is meant by alignment and the relationship between ILOs, TLAs and ATs in the last paragraph of your explanation. If I hadn’t read the text myself, I’m not sure I would have understood what aligned really means in this context. Rather than just being arranged next to each other or parallel to each other, my understanding of it – when the term is used about CA – is that they are closely interlinked and should all change, if one of them changes.

    In your own teaching example, I think it is great that the students are involved in setting their own ILOs. Apart from them deciding to ‘make a film’, ‘make a series of drawings’, ‘make a performance’ etc., I’m curious to know if these ILOs are expanded on in terms of wording like analyse, demonstrate, develop, adapt etc.? Would you consider using Constructive Alignment more in your teaching, after what you have learnt? In the teaching example that you used, it is positive that some students explore their potential in a new area and respond very well to this, but I wonder if there are ways that you could reduce the risk of students dropping in grades, if they don’t respond well to the freedom of this final term?

    I agree that the film is effective because of the narrative, but I didn’t see the bubbling sexual tension between Robert and Susan myself, I have to say! 🙂

    Have a good weekend!

    Anne

    • Hello Anna
      I totally understand your criticism, ‘The student needs to have the capacity to be able to complete the activity’ with hindsight I did totally misworded that point. I accidently read chapter 6 and there was some discussion about how a student would need to have some understanding of the area before you ILO’s were established, so they had the building blocks (still Lego obsessed) construct their knowledge in the TLA’s.

      In regards to my teaching experience, I have to admit that it does not truly fit to the Constructive Alignment model; it was the closest I had. The third term in the third year is a unusual time at LCF, as the vast majority of them are so focused on getting into the press show (15 out of 300 are chosen) which is decided at the end of the second time, some are completely disaffected if they don’t make it and the ones that do often become so preoccupied with remaking garments that there final unit is seen as a inconvenience. I think these are potentially the causes of the failure of the unit and not Constructive Alignment.
      I most admit I think the approach has been a little free form in the past and we have lacked the rigor and structure that you Ellen and Matthew have discussed in you teaching experiences. We are discussing ways about how to improve it and hopefully my understanding of constructive alignment may inform this dialogue.

      Thanks for your feedback

  2. Hi Thomas
    Looking forward to absorbing what you say more fully soon and feeding back properly. I reckon if they re-titled their book as: “Lego bricks and sexual tension” by Biggs and Tan they’d have a bestseller on their hands!

  3. Hi Thomas
    I really liked your use of the Lego story – I agree – narrative does help understanding (atleast for this dumb kid!). I have been reading Anne’s comments on the Learning Outcomes. It seems to me that if the students set there own ILOs you cannot actually criticise ‘constructive alignment’ as a process in this situation. I think it sounds interesting and really good as a learning strategy. Our situation at NUCA is that ILOs are identical and set across subjects throughout different courses at the same level. That means we have to work backwards from there, if you see what I mean.

    Like Anne, I’d be interested to hear if the wording of the ILOs are verbs like analyse, demonstrate, develop, etc. I have posted the ones I am using on the current unit with students, on my blog. Are your ILOs similar? We seem to use the word ‘evidence’ a lot – which is very subjective to a large extent. A fingerprint on a trumpet is ‘evidence’, doesn’t mean someone can play it! I think I need to go over ILOs again with the students at this point in the unit!!!

    As regards the conversation about ‘achievability’ – my understanding is that Biggs and Tan are saying that the task and outcome should be ‘achievable’ other wise it can’t technically be assessed. If it can’t be achieved, choose some other criteria to assess the activity.

    Anyway, I enjoyed reading your blog post a lot Thomas, thanks. I might even look out some Lego. I genuinely feel like making something with Lego now!

    • Hello Matthew
      Thanks for your feedback; some of the point you raised has been answered in my reply Anna.
      What you said about the use of verb’s in the teaching and learning outcomes did make me think, I think I all the other teaching staff on Womenswear maybe focus on the tangible outcomes and like the garments and although we do get them to document there process through various means we don’t encourage the students to really look at there analyses there outcomes at all or consider further development. Looking over the ILO’s for your course s enlightening.

      Thank You
      Thomas

  4. Hi Thomas,

    I enjoyed reading your post and found your approach and use of Lego as an example both refreshing and helpful in explaining CA. Also I felt it worked well using a personal experience as an illustration to the theory. It was an original way to begin.

    Maybe when you say-‘There are 4 key elements to the designing a Constructive Aligned assessment’ it would have been clearer to replace the word ‘theory’ with ‘assessment’.

    I agree with Anne, when you say-‘The student needs to have the capacity to be able to complete the activity’ that this doesn’t have to be the case or at least the emphasis shouldn’t be on their capacity it should be put on allowing or helping them to achieve and display understanding of the tasks/ activities which are later aligned with the assessment.

    I think it would have been helpful to illustrate or verbalise the TLAs, ALOs and ATs a bit more clearly, maybe as a ‘key’ or by giving your definition to the meaning of each abbreviation by using verbs?

    I think your teaching practice example was interesting. The element of group discussion is something I am keen on using at the end of each of my classes and I think it really helps keep the students engaged. I also liked the sound of your allowing them to have the freedom of mediums (film/ drawing/ performance). I think you are creating a really dynamic and relevant/ modern environment for them. When the grade difference here is supported by the previous terms assessment, I think it allows for experimentation and surprise (as well as failure, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all.)

    Did you think there was sexual tension for Susan and Robert? I’ll have to have another look! Wasn’t there more sexual tension between him and his ipod? 😉

  5. Hi Thomas,

    I left you this blog post yesterday (31st Oct) and it said ‘waiting for approval’- don’t know why its not showing up..here it is again though.

    I enjoyed reading your post and found your approach and use of Lego as an example both refreshing and helpful in explaining CA. Also I felt it worked well using a personal experience as an illustration to the theory. It was an original way to begin.
    Maybe when you say-’There are 4 key elements to the designing a Constructive Aligned assessment’ it would have been clearer to replace the word ‘theory’ with ‘assessment’.
    I agree with Anne, when you say-’The student needs to have the capacity to be able to complete the activity’ that this doesn’t have to be the case or at least the emphasis shouldn’t be on their capacity it should be put on allowing or helping them to achieve and display understanding of the tasks/ activities which are later aligned with the assessment.
    For example- this first term I am finding that I have a real range of student ability from the not understanding the basic principles to advanced students who are already sooting ahead. I need to find a balance in my teaching methods because of this- its thought provoking and I’m working on it!
    I think it would have been helpful to illustrate or verbalise the TLAs, ALOs and ATs a bit more clearly, maybe as a ‘key’ or by giving your definition to the meaning of each abbreviation by using verbs?
    I think your teaching practice example was interesting. The element of group discussion is something I am keen on using at the end of each of my classes and I think it really helps keep the students engaged. I also liked the sound of your allowing them to have the freedom of mediums (film/ drawing/ performance). I think you are creating a really dynamic and relevant/ modern environment for them. When the grade difference here is supported by the previous terms assessment, I think it allows for experimentation and surprise (as well as failure, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all.)

    Thanks Ellen

    • Hello Ellen

      My teaching example did not fit that well with the constructive alignment model, but this project and all of your guys feedback has been really constructive and made me consider how we could potentially rewrite this unit.

      Do you think we could possibly do the teaching observation of each other if no else has asked you. I have done some work with your students helping with exhibition and the layout of the exhibition newspaper for Paul and it would be really nice to see the inner workings of the course.

      Thanks for your feedback
      Thomas

  6. This is all really engaging and thought provoking. Particularly becasue I am about to spend a week traing in Lego Serious Play! More on my return!

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