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Alignment: A Proven Method to Help Students Achieve Learning Goals

Submitted by on April 18, 2013 – 3:39 pmNo Comment

This is part two of a three-part series on improving the quality of your online course. Below we explain how to create course alignment to ensure students achieve learning objectives. Part one discussed how learning objectives build a solid foundation for your course; part three discusses where and how learner engagement occurs. metal gears

Learning objectives are vital to students’ success. But even if written effectively, they lack impact if the course materials do not support those objectives.

Alignment refers to how all instructional materials and assessments work together to ensure students achieve the learning objectives.

No matter what assessments you use—whether auto-graded exams, case studies, or major projects—the course materials should support the learning objectives that the assessments will measure (See Standards 2-6 of the Quality Matters (QM) Rubric and the QM Rubric description). Alignment benefits students because it communicates how course materials relate to the assessments and objectives. Without alignment, students may feel lost, confused, or frustrated by their learning experience. Alignment benefits instructors because it enables them to recognize when students aren’t meeting objectives and to identify trends in data that reveal course improvement opportunities.

How do I align my course?

Heidi Ashbaugh, online program director for health studies at Texas Woman’s University, suggests two methods for aligning a course – backward design and forward design. Backward Design—Use this method if you’ve already determined course assessments:

  1. Consider course assessments and artifacts students will create.
  2. Determine instructional materials (e.g., textbook readings, multimedia, micro-lectures) that help students create the artifacts or complete the assessments successfully.
  3. Write measurable learning objectives that support activities and assessments.

Forward Design—Use this method if you’ve already determined learning objectives (self-created or set by institution).

  1. Write measurable, action-oriented learning objectives that address the appropriate level of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
  2. Choose instructional materials that help students work towards those objectives.
  3. Choose assessment methods that indicate students’ mastery of the objectives and materials.

How can I ensure my course is aligned?

To verify alignment, Ashbaugh created the Sample Course Alignment Grid shown below that you can easily recreate for your course. As demonstrated in the graphic, use an “X” to verify which activity (modules, materials, and assessments) support—or align— with each objective. Note that materials and assessments can support more than one course objective. (Click image to enlarge.)
Course alignment grid
If an activity does not align with an objective, you may need to remove it from your course. Replace the activity with one that aligns with the learning objectives, or remove the activity. Also use the Course Alignment Grid as a framework when building a new course. The grid creates an opportunity to check alignment before you teach the course to identify potential gaps in pedagogy.

How can I demonstrate alignment to students?

Include the completed Course Alignment Grid in the syllabus—it provides students a blueprint for how assessments, materials, and objectives relate. When students see how alignment occurs in the course, they feel supported by the material; they spend less time stressing over learning objectives and more time mastering content.

Share Your Experiences

Where have you seen the benefits of alignment in your course? If this is your first time to look at your course’s alignment, where does your course align and where does it not align? [social-bio]

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