Assess It! | October 14, 2015

Danish educational humor: Part 3

Welcome to our third and final installment on the delightful short film “Teaching Teaching and Understanding Understanding“, an exploration of Dr. John Biggs’ theory of constructive alignment. This is the big closing, where we finally learn what we are supposed to do, as teachers, to ensure Susan (the “good” student) and Robert (the “bad” student) both end up succeeding in their Computer Science program at University.


I won’t leave you in as much suspense as the film did. Simply said, the answer is to assess students by making them do the skill in the test, paper or other assignment that you want them to be able to learn.

  • If you want them to be able to explain critical theories by the end of the class, have them explain a theory in the assignment.
  • If you want them to be able to relate key concepts to their own life by the end of class, have them relate several concepts to their own life in the assignment.

You’re probably thinking this is so ridiculously obvious, why have I spent time writing this blog post (a three-parter no less) and why did this poor Dane make a whole movie about it?

UnalignedCourseBecause we don’t do it. We usually first think about the topics we want to cover. Then we think about some assignments or exams that would engage the students with those topics in some way. Then we pop some idealistic learning outcomes on the front of the syllabus to get us through a compliance check. Ok, maybe you don’t do that but I certainly did when I was faculty (belated apologies, UWM students).

If we go this direction, we’ll likely end up with assignments or tests that do not at all reflect what we want students to be able to know and do by the end of the course. But students, of course, want a good grade, so they will just focus on “what they need to know for the paper/test” and ignore everything else you’re teaching. Constructive alignment, on the other hand, lines everything up so students are always doing what we want them to be doing. This is similar to the concept of backwards design Faculty Fellow Laura Baecher spoke about in an earlier post. The model instructor in the film explains to her students:

These are the course objectives, and also what you’ll be expected to be able to do at the exam, and what my exam will measure. Furthermore, this is what we’re going to reflect upon and what you’ll be trained in doing during the entire course.

She’s got it together. As mentioned in the first post, Level 3 instructors are at the highest level in thinking about teaching – they are focused on what students do. Once we’re focused in that way, our teaching is more about how students act out the learning goals rather than how we act out our teaching techniques.

The film ends with Robert and Susan happily figuring out a problem together after class. They’re sitting very close together, laughing as the music swells – perhaps Level 3 teachers have some skills in the matchmaking department as well. Or Danes just really love computer science. In any case, constructive alignment leads to happy endings. Maybe we should try it out.


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