Writing and assessing unit level learning outcomes

Constructive Alignment explained

At this point, it may be helpful have a better understanding of constructive alignment as a curriculum design process.
"Constructive alignment has two aspects. The 'constructive' aspect refers to what the learner does, which is to construct meaning through relevant learning activities. The 'alignment' aspect refers to what the teacher does, which is to set up a learning environment that supports the learning activities appropriate to achieving the desired learning outcomes. The key is that the components in the teaching system, especially the teaching methods used and the assessment tasks are aligned to the learning activities assumed in the intended outcomes.

The learner is in a sense 'trapped', and finds it difficult to escape without learning what is intended should be learned."

Biggs (2003)

In principle, constructive alignment describes the relationship between three elements. 

  1. The intentions of the teacher expressed as learning outcomes (what the teacher intends the students will be able to do because of their learning).
  2. The teaching and learning activities in which the teacher engages the students to facilitate the desired learning.
  3. The assessment tasks that test the student abilities in respect of the learning outcomes.

In practice, when designing new units, it has become common among many colleagues to start by writing aims and intended learning outcomes.  Consideration is then given to how these might be best assessed before finally designing the teaching activities that will support the required student learning and assessed tasks.  This process is shown diagrammatically in Figure 1 and is explained in detail in the following short video:



Figure 1 - An overview of constructive alignment and factors (at MMU) influencing curriculum design:

Constructive alignment at MMU


The principles of constructive alignment are reflected in the undergraduate and postgraduate curriculum frameworks which require us to map out very clearly the alignment between assessment and learning outcomes in the unit specification forms. The following short video shows how this has been put into practice through the online unit specification form:



In reality, this is nothing new as the QAA has regarded itself a champion of constructive alignment since 2002 (Jackson, 2002) and its principles have been embedded in the documentation we are required to produce for programme validation and review processes for some time. In this context, however, the Undergraduate Curriculum Framework restricts the numbers of learning outcomes we can set (5 max) and the number of summative assessments we can use to test them (2 max). 

The postgraduate and flexible curriculum frameworks are less prescriptive, but many programme teams use the same approach of limiting the number of learning outcomes and assignment tasks in order to keep the structure consistent and easy to explain to students.


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