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Motivated students with constructive alignment

Last updated on 21 February 2024
Constructive alignment (Biggs, 1996) is an educational concept that revolves around the logical alignment of learning objectives, learning activities and assessment. This means that what students should learn (the learning objectives) aligns with how they learn (the learning activities) and the method of assessment (the testing). The idea behind it is simple yet powerful: when you align these elements, your students are more motivated and learn more deeply.

By applying constructive alignment at different levels, you provide an integrated and effective learning process that students are motivated to engage in. Students are generally very goal oriented. This means that when the learning objectives, learning activities and assessment are not aligned, students usually align their goal-oriented learning behaviour with the assessment or final exam. As a result, they are less motivated, achieve poorer results and (possibly) rate your course lower.

The different levels of constructive alignment
Constructive alignment is a multifaceted concept that you can apply at different levels of education, including classroom level, course level and program level.

  1. At the classroom level, it means aligning specific learning objectives, instructional materials, and assessment methods. Take, for example, the learning objective of getting students to understand how molecular forces affect electron orbitals. As a learning activity, as a teacher you can give a demonstration where you show a simulation and students are allowed to influence the simulation themselves with variables. As an evaluation, you can have them complete a quiz on the topic.
  2. At the course level, learning objectives, instructional materials, and assessment methods are aligned not only within one lesson, but also between lessons in one course. For example, a course that aims for students to acquire a deep level of understanding of 19th-century European History. Throughout the course, students may study various texts and historical documents, participate in discussions, and make presentations about important events and individuals of the period. The final test of the course includes essay questions that ask students to demonstrate their understanding of 19th-century European history using their own topic. This aligns better with the learning objective than, for example, a multiple-choice test that only tests or requires students to merely reproduce knowledge from the learning sources.
  3. At the program level, constructive alignment is about aligning objectives, learning activities and assessment across multiple courses and years. For example, the goal of the environmental studies program is to prepare graduates for careers as sustainability experts. Students take several courses over the academic years on ecology, policy, and sustainability practices. These courses also include activities that students will perform in their future jobs such as fieldwork and (research) projects. At the end of the program, students are assessed on their ability to develop and apply sustainable solutions in situations with real problem owners (governments, environmental organizations, municipalities, farmers, businesses, etc.).