Improving university teaching – learning from constructive alignment by *NOT* mandating it

The problem

Most university teaching is crap. Too general, too sweeping? Maybe, but based on my experience I’m fairly comfortable with that statement. The vast majority of what passes for teaching at Universities has a number of really significant flaws. It’s based more on what the teaching academic is familiar with (generally based on the discipline experience) than on any idea of what might be effective.

So, how do you improve it? This is not a simple question to answer. However, I also believe that most of the current and proposed answers being used by universities to answer this question are are destined to fail. That is, they will be able to show some good practice amongst a small percentage of academic staff, but have the vast majority of learning and teaching to be less than good.

I should point out that almost all of my attempts to describe why I think this is the case and to outline a more appropriate solution have been, essentially, failures.

The following is an attempt to draw on Biggs’ (2001) three levels of teaching to formulate three levels of improving teaching that can be used to understand approaches to improving learning and teaching. I’ll briefly outline an important part of what I think is a better solution. I’ll also reject the approach Bigg’s (2001) outlines as being too teleological, too complex, simply not likely to be effectively implemented and consequently, fail.

By the end of writing this post, I’ve come up with a name “reflective alignment” for my suggested solution.

Biggs’ three levels of teaching

Levels of thinking about learning and teaching

The image to the left is taken from a short film that explains constructive alignment, an approach developed by John Biggs. (I recommend the film if you want another perspective on this.)

These levels of knowledge about teaching lays the blame for poor student outcomes in the hands of the teachers and what they perceive teaching to be about. The three levels are as a focus on:

  1. What the student is.
    This is the horrible “blame the student” approach to teaching. I’ll keep doing what I do. If the students can’t learn then it is because they are bad students. It’s not my fault. Nothing I can do.
  2. What the teacher does.
    This is the horrible “look at me and all the neato, innovative teaching that I’m doing”. I’m doing lots of good and difficult things in my teaching. Are the students learning?
  3. What the student does.
    Obviously this is the good level. The focus is on teaching and leads to learning. Biggs (2001) uses a quote from Tyler (1949) to illustrate that this is not a new idea

    [learning] takes place through the active behavior of the student: it is what he does that he learns, not what the teacher does

Flowing from these levels is the idea of constructive alignment that encompasses the type of teaching likely to suggest a level 3 teacher. Constructive alignment is based on the simple steps of:

  • Clearly specifying detailed learning objectives for students.
  • Arrange teaching and learning activities that encourage/require students to carry out tasks that provide the student with exposure, practice and feedback on the learning objectives.
  • Design a grading/marking system that requires the student to demonstrate how well they achieve the stated learning objectives.

Performing these 3 simple steps well results in the situation that Biggs (2001) describes

In aligned teaching, where all components support each other, students are “trapped” into engaging in the appropriate learning activities, or as Cowan (1998) puts it, teaching is “the purposeful creation of situations from which motivated learners should not be able to escape without learning or developing” (p. 112). A lack of alignment somewhere in the system allows students to escape with inadequate learning.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? So why don’t more people use it?

“Staff development” is crap!

That’s my characterisation of the position Biggs (2001) espouses (SDC = Staff Development Centre). This includes the following comments

…getting teachers to teach better, which is what staff development is all about…..staff development…is being minimized in many universities, not only in the UK but also in
Australia and New Zealand…..Typically, staff development is undertaken in workshops run by the staff development centre…This is the fundamental problem facing SDCs: the focus is on individual teachers, not on teaching

I particularly liked the following comment from Biggs (2001) and find a lot of resonances with local contextual happenings.

Too often SDCs are seen from a
Level 2 theory as places providing tips for teachers, or as remedial clinics for poor or beginning teachers. Most recently, they are being replaced by training in educational technology, in the confused belief that if teachers are using IT then they must be teaching properly for the new millennium.

Biggs’ solution

Biggs’ (2001) own summary is hard to argue with

In sum, QE cannot be left to the sense of responsibility or to the priorities of individual teachers. The institution must provide the incentives and support structures for teachers to enhance their teaching, and most importantly, to involve individuals through their normal departmental teaching in QE processes.

However, the detail of his suggested solution is, I think, hideously unworkable to such an extent as likely to have a negative impact on the quality of teaching if any institution of a decent size tried to implement it. As Biggs (2001) says, but about a slightly different aspect, “the practical problems are enormous”.

I’ve been involved with the underbelly of teaching and learning at universities to have a significant amount of doubt about whether the reality of learning and teaching matches this representation to the external world. I’ve seen institutions struggle with far simpler tasks than the above and individual academics and managers “game the system” to be seen to comply while not really fulfilling (or even understanding) the requirements.

3 levels of improving teaching

Leadership: when in doubt, wave a flag

I’d like to propose that there are 3 levels of improving teaching that have some connection with Biggs’ 3 levels of teaching. My 3 levels are:

  1. What the teacher is.
    This is where management put teachers into good and bad categories. Any problems with the quality of teaching is the fault of the academic staff. Not the system in which they work.
  2. What the management does.
    This is the horrible simplistic approach taken by most managers and typically takes the forms of fads. i.e. where they think X (where X might be generic skills, quality assurance, problem-based learning or even, if they are really silly, a new bit of technology) will make all the different and proceed to take on the heroic task of making sure everyone is doing X. The task is heroic because it usually involves a large project and radical change. It requires the leadership to be “leaders”. To wield power, to re-organise i.e. complex change that is destined to fail.
  3. What the teacher does.
    The focus is on what the teacher does to design and deliver their course. The aim is to ensure that the learning and teaching system, its processes, rewards and constraints are aiming to ensure that the teacher is engaging in those activities which ensure quality learning and teaching. In a way that makes sense for the teacher, their course and their students.

Reflective alignment – my suggested solution

Biggs’ constructive alignment draws on active student construction of learning as the best way to learn. Hence the “constructive” bit in the name. I’m thinking that “reflective alignment” would be a good name for what I’m thinking.

This is based on the assumption that what we really want academic staff to be doing in order to ensure that they are always improving their learning and teaching is “being reflective”. That they are engaging in deliberate practice. I’ve talked a bit about this in an earlier post.

I’m just reading a paper (Kreber and Castleden, 2009) that includes some support for my idea

We propose that teaching expertise requires a disposition
to engage in reflection on core beliefs…..The value attributed to the notion of ‘reflective practice’ in teaching stems from the widely acknowledged view that reflection on teaching experience contributes to the development of more sophisticated conceptual structures (Leinhardt and Greeno 1986), which in turn lead to enhanced teaching practice and eventually, it is hoped, to improved student learning.

So, simply and without detail, I believe it is important that if a university wants to significantly improve the quality of the majority, if not all, of its learning and teaching then it is to create a context within which academic staff can’t but help to engage in reflective practice as part of their learning and teaching.

That’s the minimum, and not all that easy. The next step would be to create an environment in which academic staff can receive support and assistance in carrying out the ideas which their reflection identifies. But this is secondary. In the absence of this, but the presence of effective reflection, they will work out solutions without the support.

(There is some potential overlap with Biggs’ (2001) solution, but I don’t think his focuses primarily on encouraging reflection. It has more in common with Level 2 approaches to improving learning and teaching, especially in how it would be implemented in most universities. Yes, the implementation problem still remains for my solution and could also most likely be implemented as a Level 2 approach. But any solution should be contextually sensitive.)

References

Biggs, J. (2001). “The Reflective Institution: Assuring and Enhancing the Quality of Teaching and Learning.” Higher Education 41(3): 221-238.

Kreber, C. and H. Castleden (2009). “Reflection on teaching and epistemological structure: reflective and critically reflective processes in ‘pure/soft’ and ‘pure/hard’ fields.” Higher Education 57(4): 509-531.

26 thoughts on “Improving university teaching – learning from constructive alignment by *NOT* mandating it

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  22. I am doing staff development in a Polytechnic in Singapore and I totally subscribe to what you are advocating. I run a workshop titled, “The Reflective Practitioner” that attempts to drive home the importance of what you wrote about – reflective alignment. Enjoyed reading your blog…thanks.

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