Posted by: Helen McLean, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, Design and Social Context College, RMIT University.
You may be wading through a sea of marking right now and swinging between moments of absolute delight and total despair as you encounter and assess the learning your students have demonstrated in their assignments.
How well did students ‘get’ what you intended this semester? Did they produce assignments that were spot-on with your intentions or did they come up with different interpretations altogether? What do these interpretations tell you about what the students wanted from the course?
Whatever your response, perhaps it would be useful to consider the extent to which educational theorists Benjamin Bloom and John Biggs have influence in your course design and how they can help you to improve student learning.
Before Benjamin can work his magic though, we must first consider John.
John Biggs, proposes that learning is far more effective when the curriculum is aligned, as he recounts an experience he had in 1994:
In my last year of teaching, I had a class of 82 schoolteachers who were studying how psychology could be applied to 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. So that is what I asked them to do, putting their evidence for psychologically-driven teaching in a portfolio. After the initial shock, they saw the relevance of the course to their own teaching. I received the best teacher ratings I’d ever had. Thus was constructive alignment born (Biggs, 2011).
In short, constructive alignment is nothing more than learning outcomes, learning activities and assessments that match each other and allow students to practice and then verify what they have learned (Biggs & Tang, 2011). For example, if an outcome is for students to be reflective, they are likely to be engaging in activities involving critical and deep thinking about improvement and growth while the assessment task might ask them to deliberate on changes of thoughts, beliefs or practice that they may have noticed in themselves over the course of the semester.
It would not make John happy if students were expecting to develop reflective abilities but were sitting passively through lectures. Or imagine if in the same course they were asked to collect vox pop data but were then assessed by multiple choice questions or an essay that was a reproduction of facts.
In the scenarios above there is no alignment between intended learning outcome, the learning activity and the assessment.
Alignment isn’t a straitjacket dictating the activities and assessments in your course. You just need to ensure that the activities and assessments make sense by being allied to your pedagogy and contributing to the learning outcomes you have indicated in your course guide. If not, students are unlikely to achieve the required outcomes and your experience at marking time may include more despair than delight.
If you have Biggs working for you (and an easy mnemonic is ‘A4’: Aims, Activities, Assessments- Aligned!) the next check is to ensure that Bloom is helping you to describe the learning outcomes you want for students.
Benjamin Bloom’s legacy for learning and teaching was to develop classifications, a taxonomy, of learning objectives in the 1950s. The best known of these classifications is the cognitive (knowing) taxonomy which describes development from simple recall and retelling through to more sophisticated activities like creation and synthesis.
Lesser known taxonomies have also been developed for the affective (feeling) and psychomotor (doing) domains. Affective learning objectives begin with the awareness of feelings and values through to their internalization while the psychomotor taxonomy maps doing skills from perception of activity to unconscious mastery. See Wikipedia’s page on Bloom’s Taxonomy for a detailed hierarchical or developmental listing of skills for each domain.
Referring to Bloom’s taxonomies and the plethora of verbs that describe each level of skill in the knowing, feeling and doing domains can assist you to accurately and explicitly write your learning outcomes to pitch or project the learning you want your students to achieve. Using Bloom’s suggestions can enrich your outcomes and clarify what you may mean by the generic verbs we slip into using such as ‘understand’ or ‘demonstrate’. Do note, however, that Bloom himself recognised that while these categories and descriptors are inherently useful, they would hold even more power when adapted and written within specific disciplines.
By involving Bloom and Biggs more consciously in your course design you will have the opportunity to offer deeper learning experiences and innovative, appropriate assessment tasks for your students.
Take some time to engage with these gentlemen once you have recovered from your marking and use them to interpret any messages for change that may have come to you from your students’ assignments.
Benjamin Bloom died in 1999. His Taxonomy of educational objectives: Handbook 1, the cognitive domain was published in 1956 but has been built on and adapted by countless educators across the world. There are many Bloom resources on the web, but try Wikipedia’s entry on Bloom’s Taxonomy to start: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloom’s_Taxonomy
John Biggs lives in Tasmania where he writes history and fiction. For the seminal Biggs resource, see his text Teaching for Quality Learning at University, also available as an eBook available in the RMIT Library (login required): Biggs, J. & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for Quality Learning at University (4th ed). Maidenhead: McGraw Hill Education.
If you’d like to know more about the men behind the ideas, check out:
Biggs, J. (2011). Constructive Alignment. John Biggs. Retrieved June 16, 2012 from http://www.johnbiggs.com.au/
Eisner, E. (2000). Benjamin Bloom, 1913-1999. Prospects: the quarterly review of comparative education 30(3). Retrieved June 19, 2012 from http://www.ibe.unesco.org/publications/ThinkersPdf/bloome.pdf