Constructive alignment for quality enhancement

The BALEAP Accreditation Scheme (BAS) May event this year is exploring the concept of constructive alignment (Biggs, 2014), which is one of the underlying principles of the revised scheme. So I’ve been thinking about what this means for EAP learning and teaching. The concept was articulated by John Biggs in a series of articles and a book: Teaching for Quality Learning at University. Incidentally, this book also explored approaches to teaching international students and came to the common sense conclusion that, rather than see students from other education cultures as somehow needing special attention, all students would benefit from the approaches he was proposing.

In his review of the application of constructive alignment to university teaching, Biggs (2014) defines the concept as follows:
Constructive alignment (CA) is an outcomes-based approach to teaching in which the learning outcomes that students are intended to achieve are defined before teaching takes place. Teaching and assessment methods are then designed to best achieve those outcomes and to assess the standard at which they have been achieved.

Image retrieved from The University of Hong Kong

Biggs’ work grew out of significant changes in Higher Education (HE) teaching in the last decades of the 20th century. The drivers for these changes were first the Bologna Process, a set of EU policies intended to harmonize HE programmes across the EU to facilitate transfer of credits across countries and promote mobility and exchange. The emphasis was on the development of graduate attributes: relevant skills, competencies and knowledge to enhance employability & the competitiveness of EU degrees. The second driver was the Dearing report in the UK, a comprehensive review intended to address wide ranging issues such as access, funding, quality and governance. Both of these led to the development of qualifications frameworks with generic descriptors, e.g. the Common European framework of Reference for Languages.

Prior to these policy initiatives, HE lecturers had been free to teach in whatever way they saw fit, leading to a wide range in the quality of teaching & learning both within and across institutions. The standard teaching method (lecturing) focused on the content of a subject and not the performance of it. Assessment tasks required the small cohort of elite students who once attended university to work out the rules of the assessment game for themselves. With the opening of HE to a wider more diverse range of local and international students, more transparency in what to learn and how to succeed was required. Biggs’ contribution was his attempt to provide the underlying principles on which to base effective teaching. He drew on common sense principles that mothers use to teach their children, e.g. to tie their shoelaces, focusing on the outcome and helping the child to succeed.

Biggs coined the term constructive alignment because it was based on the psychology of constructivism: knowledge constructed through the activities of the learner, together with alignment of teaching and assessment with intended learning outcomes. The key is to be able to define what students are expected to do with their learning, which requires Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs) to be formulated with performative verbs such as solve problems, hypothesize, apply, design, explain. In performing assessment tasks, students would be able to demonstrate knowledge, skills & competencies. Assessment would typically be through portfolios of evidence that were Criterion Referenced and not Norm Referenced. This seems to fit well with EAP syllabus design, where we want students to be able to use their knowledge of language to get things done: write essays in which they describe, explain or persuade, or participate in seminars in which they propose ideas, summarise a discussion and negotiate meaning.

Biggs (2014) cites a number of studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of constructive alignment in terms of student attainment, enhanced metacognition and satisfaction. However, he notes that ‘for CA to work properly, it needs to be embedded in a supportive culture, at each of departmental, faculty, institutional levels and even national levels’ (Biggs, 2014: 10). With Catherine Tang, he worked in the Malaysian and Hong Kong education sectors to act as general consultants for the implementation of CA. He outlines some of the problems of implementing CA in terms of staff workload and resistance to change. It takes time to develop appropriate learning outcomes but HE staff are judged on their research performance so not all are willing to prioritise effective teaching. Nevertheless, in the past 20 years CA has been systematically included in HE policies on teaching & learning and this process continues with the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework.

Loughlin et al. (2021) note the tension between the relevance of CA as a teaching tool for Quality Enhancement and its top-down imposition for institutional Quality Assurance. As an educational tool the focus is on what the student does but too often for institutional validation the focus is on demonstrable alignment, i.e. what the teacher does to defend their teaching in institutional documentation. This mechanistic use of alignment for validation & audit purposes creates an illusion of quality control with little relation to the reality of teaching practice & student learning. It also leads to a proliferation of ILOs combined with other elements (employability, soft skills, digital skills), creating a tick box exercise.

However, as Loughlin et al. (2021) point out, CA as originally conceived is a tool for reflection to aid the creation of optimal learning situations. It encapsulates, in an accessible form, many commonly agreed upon aspects of good teaching practice in HE. It involves reflecting on the deeper purpose of teaching, and thus, in its original conception, is grounded in the practice of teaching and learning.

This is the understanding that the BALEAP Accreditation Scheme brings to the concept of constructive alignment. Although one aim of the scheme is quality assurance, the quality enhancement aspect is given equal weighting by requiring institutions who put themselves forward for accreditation to reflect on the constructive alignment of their EAP programmes in relation to the institution within which they work. The application for accreditation includes a context document which sets out the principles, constraints and affordances of their context and demonstrates how their programmes respond to institution-wide teaching and learning principles.

Biggs, J. (2014). Constructive alignment in university teaching. HERDSA Review of Higher Education, 1, pp. 5-22

Erikson, M.G. & Erikson, M. (2019) Learning outcomes & critical thinking – good intentions in conflict. Studies in Higher Education, 44/12, 2293–2303

Loughlin, C., Lygo-Baker, S. & Lindberg-Sand, A (2021). Reclaiming constructive alignment European Journal of Higher Education, 11/ 2, pp. 119–136

Author: Olwyn Alexander

I'm an author and researcher in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP). I collaborated with two friends and colleagues, Sue Argent and Jenifer Spencer, to write EAP Essentials: a teacher's guide to principles and practice, now in its second edition. Sue and I also wrote the course book series, Access EAP: Foundations and Frameworks.

One thought on “Constructive alignment for quality enhancement”

  1. This is excellent news, Olwyn – I have always found it deeply troubling that many Pre-sessional courses do not constructively align with departmental or student needs in the university. Hopefully, this will start to change with BALEAP behind it.

    Liked by 1 person

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