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Constructive alignment in instructional design

Introducing the Oppida Talks vlogs – a series of short videos on education and digital topics from members of the Oppida team. First up, CEO Bianca Raby has a practical take on why constructive alignment in instructional design is so important. You’ll find the video above followed by a more theoretical look at the subject and suggested further reading.


Hi. Today I want to talk about constructive alignment.

It’s a term thrown around a lot by educators and often probably a bit misunderstood by anyone who hasn’t gone through and worked a lot of the time in education.

So basically what it means is: does your content line up with the learning outcomes of the course and therefore are students able to do the assessments that you set, because they will essentially have, or they should, line up with the learning outcomes that you set. So we should be assessing what we plan to teach. And, so, constructive alignment means that we have a beautiful line that comes all the way through from learning outcome through to assessment.

So, an example of when this doesn’t happen is when the student gets to the assessment and opens it up and says, ‘I didn’t learn anything that helps me to get me to this assessment.’ That’s when something is not constructively aligned. A student should be able to work their way through the content and then be prepared enough to be able to attempt the assessment. Yes, often they have to go and do some of their own research and maybe kind of bring some things in, but the assessment should be very clearly aligned to what they have been discussing or learning throughout the journey.

The best way to do this, when you first start designing a course, is to actually spend some time on that first course document, which we call the Course Overview or the Program Overview. This is where you think about your rationale; the descriptor; you look at what the learning outcomes are; you start to plan your assessments; and then you do your Module Overview. So you look at how you’re going to actually sequentially teach those learning outcomes.

And really, in reality, each module should be related to either one or more learning outcomes, and every assessment task should also be related to one or more learning outcomes. If you do this at the very beginning, it’s really hard to go wrong.

It’s when we jump straight into writing the content and we forget to do this foundational document is when we get ourselves into trouble.

So, to be constructively aligned, take the time at the beginning, make sure it all lines up, and your students will have a much better experience and also be more likely to achieve the outcomes that you set in the beginning.

Constructive alignment is a teaching principle used in the design of courses and curriculums. It comes out of the blending of two key concepts:

  1. Constructivism – the idea that meaning is not passed from the teacher and received by the learner, but is something learners create for themselves out of the actions they take to learn. 
  2. Alignment – an instructional design concept that emphasises:
    • defining intended learning outcomes,
    • designing learning activities which encourage those outcomes to be achieved, and
    • designing assessment as a measure of those achievements.

Although these ideas were found in education theory as early as 1946, they were brought together as the principle of constructive alignment by psychologist and educational theorist John Biggs in his paper Enhancing Teaching Through Constructive Alignment in 1996. 

constructive alignment biggs

Constructive alignment in instructional design has subsequently been refined by Biggs and others, and widely taken up by western tertiary education institutions. Biggs (2014) noted that university teaching had been largely teacher-centred: “the focus being on what content the teacher has to ‘cover’ . . . lecturing the default method, and assessment is norm-referenced.”

By comparison, the constructive alignment “approach to teaching is learner-centred in that the target is what the learner has to achieve and how the learner may best be engaged in order to achieve it to the required standard. The teaching design is outcomes-based and assessment is necessarily criterion-referenced.” (Biggs, 2014)

constructive alignment

References/Further reading

Biggs, John. (1996). Enhancing Teaching Through Constructive Alignment. Higher Education. 32. 347-364. 

Biggs, John. (2014). Constructive Alignment in University Teaching. Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia Review of Higher Education. 1. 55-22. 

constructive alignment in education