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Navigating the Course Design Process

How do I Approach Course Design?

Exploring Your Course and its Content

When beginning the course design, or redesign process, you must first understand your course and its placement within the program. Beginning with an understanding of current learning outcomes and how they contribute to program-based learning outcomes ensures that, as you adjust your course, it can still achieve the learning that is essential for students to progress in the program. Once you are armed with this information you can begin to explore your course and its content by asking yourself:

  • Who are my students and what prior learning do they bring to the course?
  • How many students will there be in the course?
  • What resources or supports are available to me as the instructor?
  • Is this course a required or elective course?
  • Are there any professional accreditation considerations for this course?

These questions will help situate the course within the program and allow you to begin the process of course design with a clear understanding of the issues that need to be held central to your thinking.

The Role of Constructive Alignment

Constructive alignment as an approach to course design, a term coined by John Biggs, has been a highly influential idea in higher education since Biggs wrote about it in 1996. Constructive alignment begins with the end in mind (i.e. what should students know and be able to demonstrate at the end of the course). The process of constructive alignment emphasizes that students are central to the creation of meaning, and must be provided with opportunities to actively select, and cumulatively construct their own knowledge (Biggs, 1996).

Constructive refers to the idea that students construct meaning through relevant learning activities. Alignment refers to when teaching and learning activities and assessment tasks are all designed to support the achievement of student learning outcomes.

There are two parts to constructive alignment:

  1. Students construct meaning from what they do to learn.
  2. Instructors align planned learning activities with learning outcomes.

Alignment encourages students to take responsibility for their own learning by establishing trust between students and their teacher. Students construct their own learning, and this takes place inside the students' brains, where teachers cannot reach; the real learning can only be managed by the students. What teachers can do is to create an environment which is encouraging and supportive of students engaging in the appropriate and necessary mental activity.

Course (Re)Design as a Continuous Process

Constructive alignment is difficult to achieve, and almost impossible to get right the first time, especially if you are used to employing a top-down course design. That is why we encourage you to value and understand the importance of being a reflective practitioner: a teacher who constantly modifies course design and delivery, and constantly tries to work towards constructive alignment.

Moreover, this is not simply a matter of modifying learning activities and assessment. Sometimes, in the delivery of a module, reviewing assessment results, or during our work with students, learning outcomes are revealed that we had not anticipated, but that we nevertheless recognize as valuable. These emergent learning outcomes are best to be incorporated into the learning outcomes. Constructive alignment is best achieved or maintained in a process that allows for frequent iterations and modifications.

Meyers and Nulty (2009, p.567) provide 5 curriculum recommendations for designing a course based upon Biggs’ approach to constructive alignment. To maximize the quality of learning outcomes, we, as educators, need to develop our courses in ways that equip students with teaching and learning materials, tasks and experiences which:

  • Are authentic, real-world and relevant;
  • Are constructive, sequential and interlinked;
  • Require students to use and engage with progressively higher order cognitive processes;
  • Are aligned with each other and the desired learning outcomes; and
  • Provide challenge, interest and motivation to learn.

They further emphasize that teaching is inherently complex, and that these principles must be adapted to each instructor’s individual teaching approaches, strengths and to the realities that we face in the many varying contexts in higher education.

Dee Fink's "Significant Learning" model (2003), also offers a systemic approach to course design, aligning learning goals with assessment of student learning. Fink's 5 principles of good course design are:

  1. Challenge higher level of learning.
  2. Use active forms of learning.
  3. Give frequent and immediate feedback.
  4. Use structured sequence of learning activities.
  5. Use objective and fair system of grading and assessment.

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How do I Build Constructive Alignment?

The Role of Learning Outcomes

When you start to think about your student learning outcomes, consider if they are:

  • Consistent with the context of the course;
  • Focused on the learner;
  • Clearly and concisely stated;
  • Designed to be accessible for a diversity of learners.

This will ensure that they are applicable to all of your learners and the stage of learning development they are at. The next step is to consider them in light of the assessment techniques that you are using and the instructional strategies that you practice:

  • Do my instructional strategies model for students my expectations around learning outcomes?
  • Is there a consistency around how I approach my teaching and what I expect from my students?

These can be insightful questions to consider when you are attempting to align the two. If there are confusing messages between the two (e.g., a heavy reliance on content driven outcomes with instructional strategies focused on active learning and student skill development) it will be difficult for students to understand what attainment looks like. The same can be said of the relationship between outcomes and assessment; if there is not a clear link between your learning outcomes and your assessment you will run the risk of measuring the wrong thing and find it difficult to be able to validate student attainment.

The Role of Assessment Techniques

Assessment techniques are expanded on in the Building section of this guide. Reflections on assessment techniques is underpinned by a simple principle: if assessment is not aligned to learning outcomes, it will be difficult to measure what is essential. If assessment is not connected to your instructional practices, then you won’t be able to model the types of engagement that you are looking for from students. This will create confusion in your students and make it difficult for them to be prepared. If you approach teaching through active approaches but assess through traditional tools such as multiple-choice or short answer tests and exams there would be a mismatch for students. On the one hand you are asking for creativity and deep engagement and on the other you are looking for surface learning or pure knowledge acquisition. With such a mismatch, students will be confused about what learning is important and how their classroom experiences contribute to that learning.

The Role of Teaching Practices

The final thing to consider when building constructive alignment is your teaching practices or instructional strategies. As has been covered above, there should be a clear connection between your teaching practices and your student learning outcomes and assessment. The constructive alignment approach isolates the importance of these connections and reminds us that each should not be considered in isolation. When thinking about your teaching practices, consider the following questions:

  • Are your teaching activities designed so that your students can do the assessments?
  • Do your assessments and student learning activities influence what you teach?
  • Do your teaching activities support achievement of student-focused learning outcomes?
  • Have you considered designing a variety of alternative activities to help a diversity of learners meet student learning outcomes?

Considering a diversity of learners throughout your assessments can also spark new, creative approaches to assessment that may benefit all learners. More information about designing and aligning assessments with learning outcomes can be found in the Assessment section.

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