Transcript

Constructive Alignment with John Biggs

Professor David Spencer:

Welcome to the La Trobe University Podcast. This is Professor David Spencer, the Associate Dean Academic in the Faculty of Law and Management. And I’m sitting with Professor John Biggs, internationally renowned expert on higher education, author, and the person that discovered the Constructive Alignment Theory, which guides much of our work. Professor Biggs, welcome to La Trobe University.

Professor John Biggs:

Thank you very much David, a pleasure to be here.

Professor David Spencer:

Well, the first question I have for you is probably a fairly simple question that you have probably answered many, many times. What is Constructive Alignment?

Professor John Biggs:

Well, it’s a design for teaching that’s based on the idea that students construct their own learning. It’s a branch of what’s called the ‘Psychology of Constructivism’, which poses that knowledge isn’t transferred into the heads of students by teachers talking about things or by reading. It’s constructed by students. They put things together their way and that’s really how they go about learning, so that’s the constructive side.

The alignment comes from curriculum theory which says that, “If your assessment is aligned to what it is that you want students to learn, then the assessment is going to be much more effective and in turn their learning will be, because the assessment task tells the students what they are supposed to be learning.” So it’s putting together two things. The constructive side presents the student’s perspective on it, and the alignment is where the reigns, the control that the teacher has over what is learned. And the idea is that the teacher rephrases the topic to be taught in terms of an intended learning outcome that they want the student to attain.

Professor David Spencer:

Does this Theory of Constructive Alignment work across the sector, or does it work better in some disciplines compared to others?

Professor John Biggs:

Well, I think it works across the sector. Catherine, my partner and associate with this, she and I have worked in Hong Kong Universities and we have come across there the belief that particularly perhaps in science and mathematics it doesn’t work quite so well, but I tend to disagree, I think it does. It’s basically designed for teaching in general, but of course it’s grounded in particular disciplines and the direction, the content area comes from the way the intended outcomes are constructed.

Professor David Spencer:

When did you develop the Theory of Constructive Alignment?

Professor John Biggs:

Oddly enough my very last year of teaching before retirement [Laughter] when I was at Hong Kong University and I was on sabbatical leave the year before and I was very, very impressed with portfolio assessment in Canadian Elementary Schools. And it brought home to me that when I was teaching psychology to teachers in training, that they should be telling me how well they’ve been able to apply what I’ve been teaching them, not me telling them how they should be applying it. So, the portfolio assessment task looked exactly the right sort of thing so I said, “Put any examples you have of what’s worked for you in your teaching in this portfolio and we’ll take it from there.”

Well, they screamed blue murder at first because they want it to be lectured to them and to have an exam, that’s what they were used to. But when they saw that that wasn’t going to be happen, they said, “Well look, I don’t know what to put in this. How do I do it?”

Well, obviously the classwork is going to have to change considerably. What happened was that they got together in groups. They compared notes in the classroom. They kept reflective diaries and in short it encouraged them to be independent learners and putting together all this evidence that they had for the effectiveness of their teaching as inspired by whatever psychology they had been taught.

So that’s how it came about and I think it works certainly for any professional faculty because that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to get students in engineering and law and architecture and medicine, paramedical to apply theory so that they can be more effective practitioners, but at Hong Kong U, one of the most enthusiastic groups were from the arts faculty. So, you ask the question does it apply across the board now I think well, yes it does.

Professor David Spencer:

Professor Biggs you mentioned when you were talking about the history of Constructive Alignment that it partly developed through what were some of the learning activities such a portfolios, but it can also be assessment activities. But is Constructive Alignment also about rethinking your delivery?

Professor John Biggs:

Oh yes, this is where it's different from a criterion reference assessment in that we define our outcomes then we get students engaged in such a way that they’re most likely to achieve those outcomes. That’s a method of delivery if you like, a teaching method and then how well they’ll do it is the assessment task. So it’s best actually if the assessment task and the method of delivery are the same thing. Driving a car is an obvious example.

Then we’ve got the aim is to drive a car. The teaching method is sitting in the car and driving it and the assessment is how well. That’s been upgraded quite recently in problem-based learning in tertiary education. What’s the aim is to solve problems with certain kinds starting with medical - that’s where it came from, but it can be any professional based problems.

The method of teaching is getting students together and getting them to solve problems, frequently in groups and how well they solve them is of course the assessment task. So I’m simply saying that that can be generalized from problem-based learning to Constructive Alignment where we define the outcome which becomes them doing the outcome is the teaching method and how well it’s done is the assessment. It’s basically the same sort of thing.

Professor David Spencer:

So the centerpiece of Constructive Alignment is the identification of intended learning outcomes. How do academics actually arrive at those intended learning outcomes?

Professor John Biggs:

Well, they go a step further than the step they usually take, which is when I’m teaching a subject, I’ll teach a list of topics whatever they might be. I teach them usually by talking about them or I'll direct students to read or to do something in their lab. But that’s not really the point, the point is, “Why am I teaching students? What do I want them to do that they couldn’t do before?”

Now, when I can define that, I’ve defined the outcome. So when I’m teaching this topic I’ve got to put myself now in the student’s shoes and say, “Well, what do I want you to be able to do?” And I think that’s a question we often avoid, but it’s taken for granted at least. If we define what that is, then the next step is to say, “Right.” Remember that I said, “What do you want to do?” So I want you to explain a certain theory or I want you to apply this theory to a particular problem or context so that verb "apply" is defining what that doing is and the context is the content. The only remaining thing now is to say, “All right, well to what standard do I want you to do this?”

So then I define what’s acceptable, what isn’t acceptable? Well, I could say, “What’s worth 70 plus marks, what’s worth in the range of 50 to 70 marks or whatever or I could simply use a Letter Grade System.” But the thing is I need to differentiate what is a good performance and what’s a poor performance and what’s an unacceptable performance? And when I do that, then I’ve locked in my assessment already.

And the teaching method is whatever it is that will activate that verb that's in the learning outcome. You’ve hinted that perhaps criteria reference assessment is the way to go in terms of it operating hand in hand with the Theory of Constructive Alignment is that right? Well, it’s the only way to go because if I’m saying that I’m assessing my students on how well they achieve the outcome, that’s criterion reference. It simply doesn’t make sense say, “I want my students to do this at the end of my teaching on this particular subject.”

But what I’m going to find out in the assessment is which students do it better than which other students, which is a silly question. It’s just irrelevant so it’s got to be criterion reference. It doesn’t make sense any other way.

Professor David Spencer:

La Trobe University is going through a very large project that’s embodied in our white paper that is a blueprint for curriculum review and renewal, and I know you’re familiar with some aspects of it. How does Constructive Alignment do you think fit in to the overall picture of curriculum?

Professor John Biggs:

Well, it started with me as I have mentioned in the classroom with one subject but basically it’s a design for teaching which works in a systemic sort of way. So that if the whole institution is involved then so much the better because there are certain prerequisites that you must have. For instance, you must have criterion reference assessment as I said and if the university insists on having a bell curve of assessment at the end, 15% HD’s, 20% D’s or whatever, then it’s simply not going to work. So you’ve got to work within a congenial kind of atmosphere and if everyone is involved in it, then so much the better. I see particularly in teaching courses or programs that it really is a team operation and if you can agree on the outcomes first for the course and then for the subject, what the rubrics or the criteria for assessment which define how good or poor a performance is, then teachers will need to agree about that.

So what it’s doing is taking the personality side out of teaching it, teacher proofing if you like. You’re setting up a system that people or individuals contribute to. Some may do it better than others of course but it’s essentially a systemic thing that involves well the whole faculty and easily the whole university. That’s what we’re working on in Hong Kong actually, one university was going from scratch right over to Constructive Alignment System throughout and it’s taken them four years and just about there.

Professor David Spencer:

Let me play devil’s advocate. Constructive Alignment sounds good in theory, but isn’t it a lot of hard work?

Professor John Biggs:

Well, initially yes it is. Sure it’s easier to just stand up in front of a class, mouth off and then put a multiple choice test in front of them at the end of the semester, but I don’t really call that teaching. What happens then is that you get some students who will do it quite well, of course, but others won’t. And what you’re doing then is getting the range of learning according to individual differences between students - partly inability, partly in their orientation to learning and their motivation. But with this perhaps constructing a set of constraints from which students can hardly escape without learning appropriately. You asked can it apply across the university? Well I think when I’m thinking about it right now from this point of view it’s making it teacher proof to a certain extent and perhaps student proof as well.

We’re all locked in to this together and I think that makes it more effective, but it is more hard work. But once you’ve got your criteria set out and agreed amongst the staff, once you’ve got the teaching learning activity set up, then it’s certainly no more work than the old method, but it’s just so much more rewarding work. I think teachers find that they like it and students like it a lot more. They can see where they’re going which is important whereas in the other system at the end of an exam they can’t really see at all. So yes, it is a bit more work, but it’s more rewarding on all sides.

Professor David Spencer:

Professor John Biggs, thank you for your time today.

Professor John Biggs:

Thank you very much Dave. It’s been a real pleasure to be here.

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