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Guest Post: Designing for Alignment of Learning Objectives

Submitted by on July 5, 2012 – 2:59 pmNo Comment

Designing for Alignment: The How and Why of the Course Alignment Process – Part 1

by Heidi Ashbaugh


Many quality enhancement programs, as well as regional accreditation agencies, are starting to increase their focus on the importance of measuring student learning. For instance, you may have seen conference tracks that reflect learning metrics and accountability popping up more frequently, and this all reflects the increased attention that we are seeing in education regulations. Creating strong alignment within your course can be the first step to meeting these types of measurements. The process of ensuring that a course is well-aligned can also make instructors more confident that they know what their students are learning, and set the stage for them to provide clear evidence of student outcomes. These next few posts will help explain what alignment is, why it is important, and how to check for and implement alignment within a course. What is Alignment? Basically, alignment can be thought of as a tripod, with each of the three legs working equally to balance and support. So, in a course with good alignment, each of the following will be true:

  • Learning objectives will directly relate to the materials and activities provided in the course and will be evaluated by the assessments in the course.
  • The materials and activities provided in the course will support the stated learning objectives and will prepare students for the assessments.
  • The assessments in the course will measure the stated learning objectives and students will be more successful at these assessments after having had access to the materials and activities in the course.

Here is an example:

  • Learning objective: Students will be able to defend their position on a controversial topic using supporting evidence.
  • Materials and activities: The textbook for the course will cover the different aspects of creating a strong argument. Additional materials in the course will introduce students to both sides of the debate on smoking. An in-class (or discussion board based) debate will take place with the instructor moderating and assisting them in developing and crafting their ideas.
  • Assessment: Students will compose a 2 page research essay defending their choice of either smoking or not smoking using at least 2 outside resources.

In this situation, all 3 areas work together to provide the setting for students to achieve the desired outcome. Why is Alignment Important? In addition to the aforementioned quality and accreditation aspects, good alignment within a course provides a better learning experience for students by helping to support learner centered instruction, and making the relationships between all aspects of the course more clear to students. It also provides a better teaching experience for instructors because it can allow them to more easily see how the different outcomes of the course are being met, and instructors can more easily determine which areas of the course might need additional work. Extracting data from the course becomes easier, too, which means that you can focus on what particular outcomes students seem to struggle the most with, as well as generate information that allows for better program/department planning and research. Overview of Alignment Aspects While all three of the aspects of alignment work together, there are a few things to remember about each of them:

  • Learning Objectives
    • Both course and module/unit level objectives are needed.
    • They must be measurable.
    • They should be written from the student point of view.
    • Students should understand how to achieve the objectives.
    • Course Materials and Activities
      • They should support and directly relate to the learning objectives.
      • They should prepare students for the assessments.
      • Assessments
        • These should appropriately measure learning objectives, and draw on skills and knowledge covered in the materials and activities of the course.
        • Clear grading criteria should be provided.

Let’s look at each of these in a little more detail. Learning Objectives Most courses typically have course level objectives required by the university, college, department, or program. However, often these are not broken down throughout the course. One reason to include module/unit (or chapter, etc.) level objectives in your course is to provide benchmarks for student achievement. This can be related to the same technique that we often use when completing any large task – we break it up into smaller, more manageable tasks that will allow us to eventually complete the whole thing. Additionally, course level objectives will typically require higher level cognitive functions, so module/unit level objectives can help provide students with some lower level practice outcomes that will help them build up their skills to the course level outcomes. Setting measurable objectives, interestingly enough, can seem either deceptively easy or ridiculously hard. I have found that it is best for me to use some of the excellent tools available based on Bloom’s Taxonomy to help ensure that the language I use for objectives does in fact describe a measurable outcome. Here is one of my favorite charts, but there are many others out there for you to choose from: http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/slatta/hi216/learning/bloom.htm. One of the reasons I like this one is that it gives some samples of the types of assignments and sources of activities that fit the different cognitive areas and terms. This makes it a little easier to be sure that I am on the right track. So, using the previous example provided, I could use this chart to see that some possible activities for teaching students to “defend” a point of view might be writing letters, working in a group with a discussion panel, a court trial, etc. The course objective here, “compose”, is actually at the highest level of the taxonomy under “creating”, so this ensures that the course level outcome will show  students’ progress in skill throughout the class (you can more easily see where this objective falls in this resource: http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/resources/Teaching/CourseDesign/Objectives/BloomsTaxonomyVerbs.pdf). Writing the objectives from the student point of view makes it a little easier for students to understand what exactly they are going to be asked to do. To help with this, though, additional information for the module/unit should be provided that specifies what they will do to ensure that the objectives are met. There are some effective ways of mapping this that benefit both the student and the faculty member, which we will discuss in more detail later. However, you can also fulfill this by simply adding a bulleted list of tasks that students should accomplish during that module/unit, or even a checklist at the end of the module/unit that helps them ensure they have done everything that is required. If your module is well aligned, then the students should simply need to ensure that they had completed everything in order for the objectives to be met. For more information on how crafting strong, measurable learning objectives can be helpful to students and on how to complete this task, you may want to check out these great resources by Carnegie Mellon:

In my next post, I will talk more about aligning course materials, activities, and assessments within the course. This post was used with permission by Heidi Ashbaugh, MA, MLS, LMT Email: [email protected]

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