After giving a workshop it was suggested I write an article based on the principles. I have submitted it to present at the 2018 Learning and Teaching Conference at my university. There is not proceedings or publication from it, so I am sharing here.
This article examines the concept of constructive alignment in learning (Biggs, 2005) and how integrating reflective practice throughout teaching and learning, encourages deeper learning experiences. Teachers are encouraged to aligning learning outcomes, activities, feedback, and assessment to benefit students as they progress from learning and preparing for assessment to achievement. Recognising and understanding the student perspective is essential to understanding the balance of how taught material, experience, and avenues for application of learned skills can impact student engagement. The principles of student self-efficacy beliefs (Bandura, 1986) and the influence these have on student’s self-regulation of their learning behaviors (Zimmerman, 1998; Schunk & Usher, 2013) is explored. The importance of integrating feedback in accessible ways and providing opportunities for students to develop their agency throughout learning is highlighted and presented alongside practical suggestions for teaching.
Keywords: feedback, assessment, learning design, student agency, reflection
Across higher education there is great variety and diversity in the spaces used for learning, from the indoor traditional lecture hall with one teacher speaking to hundreds of students, to small-group seminar or lab type environments, to one-to-one teaching or tutorial sessions, to the on-site placement learning that takes students into the professional workplace. Each affords different dynamics and possibilities for skills development, interaction, and feedback. The size, shape, and context of teaching and learning spaces impacts how teachers structure content and how students approach learning.
Historically the lecturer transmitted knowledge to the masses, whether in a Greek amphitheatre or millennia later when lecturers teaching monks could be fined for deviating from the written teaching text (Beichner, 2014). This was considered educational learning. However, a student copying from dictation is far from what has developed as a modern understanding of good learning. Kolb shifted perspectives with his definition of learning as ‘the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience’ (1984, p.38). Bandura (1997) stressed the importance of the wider cycle of human behavior, including the context of how the self, the environment, and behaviors interact to have a causal, triadic reciprocity on one another. Teachers can use scaffolding, as based on Vygotsky’s theories, to create frameworks to help students achieve. Zimmerman (1998) moved from the teacher creating frameworks to analyze the student’s metacognitive aspects of learning, to understand the importance of self-regulating learning behaviors. Blaschke (2012) made the case that learners progress from a state of pedagogy, where they are expressly taught by the teacher, to andragogy, where learners are self-directed and utelize self-regulatory behaviors, to heutagogy, where learners are still more autonomous and begin to develop their own capabilities for learning. Downes argues that in the most autonomous situations, for example self-initiated online learning, constructionism, and embedding scaffolding, is neither enough nor an adequate description of learning. Connectivism, where students are the central agents who direct, connect, and network in order to learn, enables both agency and autonomy, but when this is mixed with constructionism in autonomous learning, it is flawed: “…the problem with social constructivism. There is no constructor. There is no person other than the learner themselves to do the constructing” (Downes, 2017, p.281)
Our understanding of learning has expanded from being an external thing to a process, and includes thoughts, actions, interactions, self-beliefs, and wider applications of understanding. This holistic understanding of learning develops broader skills and attributes involved in autonomy, agency, self-belief, self-direction, networking, communication, cognitive processes, and are wrapped into the learning experience and have become increasingly important to students as they approach entry to the professional world. Employers have shifted from looking purely for applied skills to also valuing understanding, efficacy beliefs, and awareness and implementation of metacognition (Knight & York, 2004).
In modern educational contexts, large spaces have an inbuilt imbalance where a single teacher addresses many learners at one time. Lecture formats are not designed for a teacher to provide an individual experience or even respond to each person within a session, and students do not prefer learning in these passive settings (Powell, 2003; Lujan & DiCarlo, 2006). Very large classes may have limited engagement with discursive tasks during sessions, impacting interaction with students’ work during the course, and assessment for large numbers is often through an exam or a set essay question where teaching assistants often take on grading responsibilities. When this is the case, there may be little or no guarantee of feedback from the assessor, and may be little opportunity for iterative feedback in preparation for assessments. A scenario like this begs the question how does traditional teaching and assessment cater to a student’s learning? If there is a simply yes or no answer to the question, how does it contribute to on-going learning? Without interaction where is the process? Exam tasks may be unrelated to the learning and skills that were taught, and become a disjointed, linear end to a class.
Learning as a cycle
Different definitions and models of a learning cycle have developed across education and in disciplines beyond education. Decades ago Kolb introduced four stages of experiential learning that move through experience, observation, conceptualisation, and experimentation (Kolb, 1984). This became a cornerstone for bringing the student actively into the learning experience. Boyd, who was not an educational specialist, but a military colonel, presented a different model of learning with the OODA loop, consisting of Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act (Boyd, 1996). Although reflection is not an explicit stage in this model, the OODA model is considered as a loop, with the understanding that feedback follows both decisions and actions, and is considered before the next situation is observed or encountered. Originally the OODA process was crafted to be a very fast process, as the speed of execution was essential for Boyd’s active men in the air force, and completing your learned assessment of a situation faster than your combatant was of great value in practical situations (Richards, 2012). Fortunately in education, speed is not always essential and in most settings there is not an aggressive race to complete learning before peers.
Reflection is an important part of the learning cycle. Kolb’s reflection involves an analysis of experienced events, allowing learning to transfer from the original context to another setting. Schön (1987) introduced various types of reflection into the learning cycle: reflection in-action and on-action. Reflecting while the action takes place, taking into account what is already known and using that knowledge to influence the unfolding experience is reflecting in-action. Reflecting on-action happens when people pause from the action, analyze, and apply criteria to experiences (Race, 2005). Creating distance from the learning event, gives an external perspective for reflecting on, or back at, learning experiences. Reflections on-action are then used to find meaning that can be applied to future endeavours. Race (2005) highlights that the deepest reflections happen when students go beyond simple analysis ‘to ask what else’(p.231).
Cowan (2006) added to Kolb’s learning cycle by integrating Schön’s (1987) types of reflection, and explained that students may reflect at different stages within their learning, as opposed to solely at the end of a learning cycle. Zimmerman (1998) introduced a difference to the other models that included elements of internal preparation that was a pre-action reflection stage, followed by engaging with activity, and was followed by another reflective phase. This formed a loop of reflection both before and after the engaging with the experience, linking reflection to the preparation for the next active cycle.
These cycles are more than abstract models, and in a higher education setting students constantly have opportunities to reflect as they gain information in the classroom setting, receive feedback, and benefit from opportunities to actively apply learned skills throughout their learning. Biggs’ concept of constructive alignment (2005) facilitates this reflection, beginning with the understanding that students learn through active participation. Biggs encourages integrating the skills, tasks, objectives, and assessment processes so they are aligned with one another, providing an experience that flows as opposed to undertaking a series of compartmentalized, unrelated skills or tasks. When constructively aligned, assessment tasks also become an active part of the learning process, instead of a bolt-on to look back on or simply mark what is already learned.
Embedding constructive alignment throughout a course, from initial introductions to assessment, encourages on-going interaction and feedback loops, which enhance learning. Feedback in its most simple form involves communication. This can be between teacher and student, peer-to-peer, or a student’s self-reflections. When students receive feedback and reflect on it, in metacognitive terms, this act of reflection is a form of self-assessment. Reflection can occur throughout the learning cycle, whether this is the ‘conceptualising’ stage of Kolb’s model, during the process of active learning (Cowan, 2006), or in preparation for the next task or cycle of learning (Schunk & Usher, 2013). When the elements of the curriculum are aligned, feedback and reflection become integrated into the learning cycle. In this way, assessment becomes another opportunity and means for reflection, and it takes on a whole new meaning.
Assessment as criterion-validated reflection
Assessment becomes an integral part of a genuine cycle, and not as an end point for learning, when it is re-framed as an opportunity to reflect (Bloxham & Boyd, 2011). Presenting assessment as a tool for criterion-validated reflection makes it valuable to ongoing learning, as opposed to the type of assessment that is an exercise in measuring some level of attainment like a binary test with right/wrong answers. An exam or test often marks the completion of a task instead of being a stage within an ongoing process, and may not necessarily encourage further thought or progress in learning. From a teaching standpoint, reorienting our perspective on assessment as a reflective tool within learning has implications on the way we feed back to students as they learn. Reflection allows self-assessment, with the chance to evaluate and reset goals in order to move forward in learning. When teachers understand how constructive alignment facilitates this from a learner’s point of view, they can better design appropriate assessment mechanisms to facilitate student learning. Teachers can support students’ learning by creating and facilitating an environment with clear objectives, tasks, and outcomes.
The need for feedback and reflection on assessment applies equally well to a student situation as it does to teaching. When teachers plan to align learning outcomes, assessments, and the activities that occur throughout their teaching, it is important to take on feedback from all available sources. Edström (2008) suggests that when teachers plan for alignment they should also practice reflection, taking into account and gathering specific student feedback through course evaluations. This two-way communication is necessary to ensure that intention is actualized, and both the content and teaching then move away from activities and assessments based on reproducing knowledge; they promote deeper learning (Biggs, 2011).
Considering the student
Students come to learning with a sense of their own personal identities, some conception of their abilities, and various beliefs in their capabilities. Some personal attributes influence and intersect with teaching and learning in a visible way and others remain entirely hidden to the teacher, however that does not mean they are not important to understand or acknowledge. Bandura (1977, 1997) introduced and subsequently developed the concept of self-efficacy, a student’s self-beliefs in their capabilities for a specific task, and these are central to learning. Without a belief in capabilities to do a task, many will shy away from it, and some will not even attempt it. As educators gain more understanding of the need for students to be active in their learning, fostering and developing self-efficacy beliefs becomes important to integrate within learning.
Students and teachers are aware of the need for goals, but few have insight into their metacognitive processes and how these can work together with self-efficacy beliefs to help facilitate and propagate the learning cycle. The educator aims to create and deliver a useful curriculum, excellent teaching, promote learning, and enable the student to broaden and fulfil his or her potential. A student may have a variety of goals, from immediate goals of completing assignments and achieving a pass mark in a specific class or module, to more long-term goals of gaining skills and crafting a portfolio that will render them employable in the future. In an ideal situation, the student and teacher understanding and perspectives on goals work in collaboration.
Students exercise agency when they are active in their learning, having the opportunity to take personal responsibility for their actions. In a learning context agency refers to the planning for and carrying out of learning processes, and there is overlap between agency and the concept of self-regulated learning. As students take responsibility for choosing and initiating tasks, they begin to self-regulate and direct their learning. When students adopt self-regulated learning behaviors, such as organising, seeking and evaluating information, and structuring their time and environment, they actively navigate their learning (Schunk & Usher, 2013) as opposed to following a predetermined path that may or may not be beneficial to the task at hand, such as relying solely on a textbook, one page after another. Using a textbook could contribute to excellent learning, but as sole curriculum and teaching tool, this significantly limits the interactive nature of learning and potential for personalisation of content for different groups of students. Self-regulated learning not only helps students to succeed at university, as they develop autonomy, use higher cognitive skills, and implement more strategic thinking in their learning, but adopting these learning behaviors also equips students to succeed in post-education training and workplace settings (Weinstein, C.E. & Acee, T.W., 2013).
Self-regulated learning practices and positive self-efficacy beliefs impact a student’s learning experience, progress, and achievement. This impact can be seen when examining the student’s approach to an assessment task. Whether for a final or formative assessment, a student’s self-beliefs and how they demonstrate agency in directing and carrying out learning contribute to how they address the criteria for an assessment. When areas of learning are constructively aligned, students are more likely to be prepared, and take an attitude that demonstrates positive self-efficacy: I understand the task, I have the skills, and I believe in my capabilities. I can do this. Students can move forward in their development as they reflect, use their skills to navigate the challenges, and continue to engage with their learning before, during, and beyond assessment.
When learning and teaching involve both the active contributions of the teacher and students, excellence, creativity, and reflection come together to enhance and encourage deeper, transferable learning. Excellence begins with the design of the learning outcomes and the curriculum. Everything from the environment to the methods can contribute to fostering a scaffolded environment enabling the student to discover and create (Pea, 2004). However, contact time is often limited, and:
“…it is not commonly found that lecture time is devoted to teaching exam skills. This is just one example of a case where students are taught content but the mode of assessment is actually removed from that content, and it illustrates a need to consider the task and how it is approached.” (Ritchie, 2015, p.40)
A teacher should not assume that understanding an assessment’s demands in terms of skills, their application, and requisite processes is obvious to a student. The perspectives of students and teachers can compete and this leads to amplifying the possibility of misunderstanding, with a disconnect between what the teacher knows and says, and what the student receives. In any one-way conversation, as in when reading typed words, there is no control or insight into how the words sound, how they will be read, or what impact those words have in the context of where and when the student reads them (Weaver, 2006). Context, inflection, setting, and any host of external factors can change how someone reads something. Without a clear direction and alignment between skills, tasks, and intended outcomes, there is room for incredible diversity of engagement and possible misinterpretation.
Scott (2016) highlights the misalignment with teaching and future tasks, and discusses the need for both awareness of a variety of experiences in learning so student transitions out of learning have ‘less abrasion’ (Askham, 2008). His focus is on transitions into higher education and vocational contexts, however these issues still exist in higher education contexts, with the multitude of facts students need to remember to pass exams, and this having little relation to their success in applying skills in a professional context (Sambell, Brown, & Graham, 2017).
Aligning the curriculum and enabling student agency means that the tasks during learning also prepare students for the tasks of assessment. In performance settings, students undertake countless repetitions, building a performance as they lead to the final performance, which in academic settings is also the assessment task. All the while they directly implement the skills needed for the performance; one repetition is not sufficient. In order to scaffold a real security and confidence in learning and delivering the necessary skills, teachers can embed several opportunities to use subsets of relevant skills to address different aspects of the assessed task.
With a diversity of tasks and methods of engagement, creativity comes into the learning process and it is more likely that feedback and reflection can be integrated into the process of creating during learning. Active feedback and reflection encourage a dialogue, instead of receiving a one-time, one-way comment, not as something to discuss, but as an acknowledgement of progress. Active, discursive feedback enables deeper learning and encourages a cyclic pattern of development.
“A challenge for the teacher is not necessarily to think of the tasks, but how to integrate them in a meaningful way into the course. …Students still need guidance and feedback on their engagement with tasks, whether these are accomplishments or failures.” (Ritchie, 2015, p.40)
When teachers consider what skills are being assessed and ask if the skills being assessed match the mode of assessment, they may find these difficult to align or find it impractical to assess the learned skills themselves, for example due to group size or time constraints. When a misalignment of skills and processes and assessment exists, there are two possible solutions: to either change the assessment, or change the nature of how skills are developed in preparation for that assessment. Teachers can begin to remedy this problem by adopting constructive alignment, helping students move from using surface approaches to engaging with deeper learning (Wang et al., 2013). Students cumulatively acquire the skills necessary to successfully achieve goals when feedback is embedded in the curriculum and tasks are aligned, and then the perceived value of learning will increase (Schunk, 2012).
As a practical example common to many higher education settings, consider what is required of a student when asked to write an essay as a final assessment task (Biggs, 2011). After sitting through a series of lectures, listening and taking notes, students may flounder with the assessment if the skills needed for writing the essay may not have been taught. Aligning the skills needed in the final assessment with the weekly learning prepares students to use their own agency confidently to complete the task. Reflecting on whether skills learned and assessments align encourages teachers to plan and perhaps re-evaluate existing curricular patterns of assessment and feedback (Sambell, Brown, & Graham, 2017).
With essays and written assessments, students need skills in research and writing, gathering information, creating coherent arguments, analysis, and integration of other researchers’ ideas, and how to clearly articulate this through written language. Embedding writing as a regular task into the course can train students and give them opportunities to engage with these skills (Kneale, 2015). It is not realistic to expect teachers to take on increased workloads, however students can feed back to one another, encouraging peer learning instead of relying solely on teacher-feedback. Scaffolding various settings where students learn from one another, through applied skills and discursive feedback can happen in class, or online through forums, blogs, or other collaborative tools.
Students need preparation in the skills required so they can be confident when it comes to accomplishing tasks. Consider broader skills such as time management and factors such as task difficulty. If students are learning presentation skills, but the assessment requires them to articulate themselves clearly in writing, then it makes little sense to set an essay task, however the learned skills could be integrated into an academic essay by requiring a 60-90 second video vignette to be embedded within or submitted alongside the essay. Producing a clear vignette piece to camera is challenging and applies learned skills, preparing them for future interview situations. Including feedback as time-stamped comments within video submissions provides context for comments and facilitates meaningful student engagement.
Constructive alignment does not belittle or discourage traditional types of assessment, but supports integrating relevant skills into learning and assessment and requires an awareness of the student experience and perspective. Participating in learning, reflecting, assessing, through skill development and active feedback processes takes on different forms across disciplines. By aligning aspects of learning and assessment in the curriculum, and embedding practical strategies and using self-regulation to encourage autonomy, agency, and self-efficacy, teachers encourage and prepare students to fully participate and engage in their learning. This engagement with all elements of learning, from skill acquisition through to reflection, encourages self-regulation, builds mastery by fostering skill development and application, teaches reflection, develops agency, and ultimately facilitates on-going cycles of learning and the transition from the classroom to professional practice.
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