Observation by mentor – constructive alignment 5/6

The final observation of the module was when my PGCAP mentor, Dave Randles, came to watch my session on Building a Radio Bulletin on 09.11.12.  Dave lectures in online, sport and digital journalism amongst other things.

As I wrote in my pre-observation form, I was mainly interested in discussing constructive alignment – whether Dave felt that the teaching/learning activities I introduced in class where aligned with the intended learning outcomes I’d written for the session and with the assessment (which I hadn’t written).  The assessment (the second one they do this module) comes in two parts:-

1) They participate in two Newsdays during which they run a newsroom and produce bulletins of radio news to a specified length at specified times.

2) They individually produce and submit a recording of a 3.5 minute radio news bulletin they’ve made which must include at least one story they have originated themselves.  They also write a commentary in which they reflect on how they went about the task, what they learnt, what they need to work on to improve.

Were my students ‘entrapped’ in a web of consistency? (Biggs and Tang 2011)

I thought it would be interesting to look back to how I’d planned this session with last year’s students (i.e. my first year teaching).  This was my introductory slide then:-

Not many verbs there.  I was simply listing the topics to be covered.  I wasn’t thinking about what and how I wanted students to learn, to what level and how that related to the assessment.  As a result, I suspect my students weren’t thinking about these things either.  I’d basically just given them my timetable for the next three hours!  It was a teacher-centric, Level 1 approach.

This year, I started from scratch and tried to think in a more student-centric way in keeping with UKPSF K3.  This is what I came up with:-

I’m not saying these are perfect but I can see an improvement.  I used Bloom’s taxonomy (1956) and the revised version (Anderson and Krathwohl 2001) to devise ILOs using verbs appropriate to the kind of “understanding” I wanted students to achieve.  I also made reference to the SOLO taxonomy (Biggs and Collis 1982 cited in Biggs and Tang 2011) to help me define the level of understanding I wanted the students to achieve.  Most of the verbs I chose would suggest I’m seeking a relational approach – can students compare and contrast different bulletin styles to draw conclusions about how they could produce their own bulletin for a target audience?

In this way, I think my learning outcomes, teaching/learning activities and assessment were aligned in this session.

The other element comes from “constructivism” whereby students construct meaning from what they do to learn.  I definitely did not do this last year.  I cringe as I write this!  In order to get students to understand (NB vague verb) that there are different kinds of news and bulletin styles for different audiences and networks, I played the students a series of examples and after each one gave them information about the station’s target audience etc.  No wonder their eyes glazed over!

This year I used the same exercise (with updated examples, obviously) but flipped it round.  I put the bulletins on Blackboard and divided the students into groups.  Each group listened to one bulletin, analysed it (I gave them some suggested questions to think about) and did a bit of research about the radio station to set it all in context.  They then presented to the class so I could assess their understanding, question them and get the whole class to further explore the issues raised.  This teaching/learning activity, I hoped, would help them to to build their understanding of how bulletins vary considerably depending on a station’s news values and target audience.  I feel this approach more closely fits in to UKPSF A3, A4, K3, K4.  However, in order to improve, I need to think more about K5.  How can I evaluate this approach?  Do I note the quality and depth of the students’ analysis?  Do I look at the quality of work in their assessment?

Dave and I discussed this constructive alignment approach and he said he could see clearly how my ILOs and TLAs fitted into the finished product – the assessment.  He observed how well the students engaged with the activity beyond what he would expect from a first year group.  He noted that every single member of each group spoke up during the feedback to class – something which I hadn’t explicitly required of them.  This felt very positive and suggested that the students were motivated to learn in this scenario, possibly because they could see the link between the TLAs and the assessment.

As we discussed constructive alignment, we found it hard to think how you could avoid it in a journalism course!  To adapt Biggs and Tang (2011)’s driving instructor analogy – the intention is that students learn how to be journalists, the teaching focuses on doing journalism while the assessment provides feedback and grades a piece of journalism they produce and how they went about the task.

Having said that, I managed to avoid it last year by focusing far too much on TLAs which were not aligned to the assessment and led to student passivity although at the time I thought I was giving them the appropriate knowledge to complete the assessments.  Engagement with the theory and practice of Constructive Alignment has enabled me to reflect on my previous teaching, identify teacher-centric approaches which discouraged deep learning, explore new ways of teaching, apply them and then evaluate how it went.  Thus I feel I have evidence to support my claim that I am thinking about and utilising UKPSF V3.

Dave then added that he too found himself doing too much of the work in classes instead of getting the students to construct their knowledge from their own activities.   So even though we agreed that constructive alignment was common sense, we were forced to admit that it was all too easy to slip back into traditional, teacher-centric roles and a level 1 approach to teaching during the actual sessions.

So although constructive alignment can seem like the golden bullet to solve all our problems – such as student passivity, surface learning – it still provides only a framework for our teaching.  It does not automatically make us better, more student-focused teachers.  Teachers still need to reflect in-action on their engagement with students and their use of questioning.

For example, Dave spotted a few occasions where I could have further questioned students as they were feeding back their analysis of bulletins.  I’m going to look in more detail at the use of questioning in a separate post because I think it’s something I do need to work on.  But in the context of this post, I’d like to suggest that although we agreed my TLAs were aligned well, I didn’t maximise their potential to construct student knowledge.  I find this very frustrating and wish I could go back and do it again!

I’m reassured (and challenged) by Dr Warren Houghton who was commissioned by the HEA Engineering Subject Centre to explore constructive alignment, its advantages and misinterpretations.

Constructive alignment is actually extremely difficult to achieve: it is virtually impossible to get it right first time, through so-called rational top-down course design. That is why the ILTHE, for example, emphasises the importance of the reflective practitioner; the teacher who constantly modifies course design and delivery, constantly trying to work closer to the unattainable perfect constructive alignment. (Houghton, W. 2004)

He continues by saying constructive alignment is only possible in an institutional system which allows “frequent modification of module descriptors.”  This is because the inevitable unintended but desirable learning outcomes should always inform course and assessment design in a constant process of reflection and evaluation.  Sadly, as a lowly, hourly-paid member of the teaching team, my input to module design may be minimal.  I may never get to achieve perfect constructive alignment!

But I do have control over how I design my learning sessions and how I check that the students have achieved the learning outcomes I designed.  So I disagree with the somewhat pessimistic powerlessness of Houghton’s predictions.  Instead of focusing on what I can’t change, I should ensure I’m making the most of my opportunities within the “delivery” of the module.

Assessment is the key part of ensuring the success of delivery because it has such a profound effect on student learning (Biggs & Tang 2011, Gibbs 2004 and others).  I grade and provide summative feedback on the two assessments but I’m also assessing how they perform specific journalistic tasks during the newsday simulations so I can observe and give feedback on a whole range of skills.  I provide formative feedback at several points during the news days too which they can then incorporate into their learning in order to continue improving their performance.  At the same time, peer-assessment is built in to the process because students are working as a team to produce the best on-air news bulletins they can.  They critique and select each other’s work.

In fact, exploring the literature on this subject and applying it to my module, I can see numerous ways in which I do give formative assessment throughout the module and opportunities where I could increase this.  I can see how assessment, properly done alongside teaching,  supports learning rather than being a separate entity especially when it fulfils key conditions such as timeliness, frequency, quantity.  Crucially it needs to focus on aspects the student can work on rather than personal characteristics which they have no hope of changing. (Gibbs 2004).

Formative feedback is built into the delivery of the module in informal ways too.  Students discuss their assignments with me, face to face or by email.  This enables me to see what conceptual changes have taken place during the module as a result of learning. Eg do they have a stronger sense of what makes a news story now?  If I see a problem, I can pose a question to encourage the student to go deeper or look again at a particular issue.  On several occasions, I’ve found this informal feedback has had a very positive effect on student learning.

I understand what you mean now, it will be coming from the wrong angle. To make this newsworthy I need to interview a local business near by to see how it’s affected.  (Extract from student email)

It also enables me to assess my own teaching – what difficulties can I see and how can I address those?  (Nicol et al 2004)

In most cases, it seems they start planning their assessment task quite early on – looking for a story, checking in with me for formative feedback.  So the assessment and learning take place simultaneously rather than rushed into the final few days before it has to be handed in.

However, in spite of the obvious benefits of formative feedback, I still find difficulties in providing it fairly to all students.  The students who put themselves forward receive more feedback than those who shyly hide at the back.  There are still one or two students who haven’t asked for any feedback at all during the preparation of their first assessment.  The first time they will get detailed feedback from me will be on their first assessment which they’ll receive very close to the end of their module.  I’m still considering ways in which I can assess these students earlier in the course but it’s difficult when they participate less in group work and discussions.


Biggs, J, & Tang, C (2011)  Teaching for Quality Learning at University (4th ed).  Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill/Society for research into higher Education/Open University

Houghton, Warren (2004) Engineering Subject Centre Guide: Learning and Teaching Theory for Engineering Academics. Loughborough: HEA Engineering Subject Centre.  Retrieved from http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/subjects/engineering/constructive-alignment

Gibbs, G. and Simpson, C. (2004) Conditions under which assessment supports students’ learning. Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, vol. 1. pp.1-31

Juwah, C., Macfarlane-Dick, D., Matthew, B., Nicol, D., Ross, D. and Smith, B. (2004) Enhancing student learning through effective formative feedback. HEA. At http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/York/documents/resources/resourcedatabase/id353_senlef_guide.pdf


5 thoughts on “Observation by mentor – constructive alignment 5/6

  1. Hi Liz,

    This is another insightful post about the mentor observation. I remember David Randles. Pleased that you used this observation as an opportunity to look closer at constructive alignment and how you achieve this and to what degree in one of your sessions. I am pleased to see that you had an open and honest conversation with David and that the observation was also useful for him and made him reflect on his practice.This is really wonderful and I am pleased he also saw value in this.

    You mention that constructive alignment can or should be seen (?) as a natural process and I think it is a useful instrument but as such it has its limitations too, as you have started discovering. You mention for example that you have perhaps limited influence of shaping a specific module and therefore are more engaged with the ‘delivery’ of a module and less with the design. If you are teaching the module and you know what you would like your students to achieve, the how this is going to happen and how you will find out that this has happened and to what degree, is up to you. So I think you have full control over how you design your sessions to maximise learning in your classrooms.

    Also, I would like to explore a bit further the purpose of assessment after we discussed it yesterday in class extensively. You mention in your post

    “To adapt Biggs and Tang (2011)’s driving instructor analogy – the intention is that students learn how to be journalists, the teaching focuses on doing journalism while the assessment looks at a piece of journalism they produce.”

    What do you mean exactly when you say we look at a piece of journalism they produce. Are you assessing the final product only? And if this is the case, what about the process? Think about assessment of and for learning? What is more important and why and what does the literature say? A few more things to think about.

    Well done so far Liz!

  2. Hi Liz,

    This is much stronger now and I can see that you took my suggestions and comments on board when reworking this piece. And you are now starting to critique some of the literature. Remember to be specific and include your rationale. This is very important.

    Just a quick additional observation. You mention

    “I was giving them the appropriate knowledge to complete the assessments.”

    I would like you to think about the above. I understand that this is a statement from the past. Can we give knowledge? How has your understanding changed now?

    I am really pleased with your development over the course of this module so far Liz. You have been consisent in your engagement and have used this module to explore theory and your practice in a meaningful way and make changes too to enhance your students’ learning experiences. This is wonderful. Well done!


  3. Pingback: Observation by mentor – constructive alignment 5/6 by Liz Hannaford #lthesep12 | PGCAP News Blog

  4. Hi Liz,

    More feedback :-). A nice use of constructive alignment. I’m guessing your classes are largely qualitative and discussion-based. That being the case, I can see that first-year Journalism probably lends itself quite well to PgCAP-style indoctrination compared to final-year Physics.

    It was interesting to see that you use PowerPoint slides – how many do you get through over a three-hour session? I’ve never used a PowerPoint slide in a single lecture (and not just because of the reliance on ITS when things go wrong with technology…). My courses are based on lecture notes. If notes represent the shortest distance between two points on a map, then lectures are a meandering drive along the B roads (but maybe with a motorway last dash at the end, if I’ve not timed things ‘just so’!). I have a copy of the course notes in front of me, but they’re there as a rough guide and on the understanding that I NEVER read from them unless quoting verbatim something important (nothing worse for a student than a lecturer who just reads out the notes – what’s the point of being there?!).

    When using PowerPoint, do you find yourself looking more at the audience or the slides? Perhaps you’re in a position in the classroom where you can see both. When I’m in chalk & talk mode, I’m always conscious of facing away from the audience when writing on the whiteboard. I also have to be careful not to carry on talking with my back to the students.

    I do have a fundamental problem with the whole ILO thing – just another overly-prescriptive educationalist “idea” (see discussions with Sian and Chrissi somewhere on my blog). I agree it’s important to tell the students what they’re going to do and, more importantly, why they’re going to do it. To that end, I usually start a lecture by talking about the physical and mathematical principles we’re going to look at (not necessarily ‘today’ but over the next couple of weeks or so), why they’re important, where else they’ve cropped up in other modules (though maybe ‘in disguise’), and where they’ll appear in future courses (for MPhys students). We might even have a (brief) discussion about it. So having packed our proverbial car, we can begin the journey. All the other key skills we’ll pick up along the road, provided you remember to get into the car before we set off, Robert! And all the fuel we need is a whiteboard and some marker pens and our brains :-).

    I loved your enthusiasm and profound commitment to teaching :-). Would be nice to have the time to start from scratch, but that’s so far removed from the reality over in Physics. Perhaps if we got more FT staff (to reduce our sky-high SSR) and took a sabbatical from research (and administration!!) – a novel solution, since academics are usually desperate for sabbaticals from our stifling teaching loads, not our neglected research :-(. But with the catastrophic loss of grant income (Physics punches well above its proverbial weight), I suspect that approach might end up tipping Salford over the edge into a “teaching-only” university (using the term loosely). And that’d be Game Over for our Strategic Plan – you’ll not find a single teaching-only institution in the upper quartile of UK universities.

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