Aligned Course Design

Atmosphere, Activities, Aims, Assessment

With Aligned Course Design "learning [aims] define what we should be teaching, how we should be teaching it, and how we could know how well students have learned it" (Biggs and Tang). A "backwards design" (Wiggins and McTighe) process includes three components:

  1. Identify desired results (cognitive, affective, kinesthetic learning aims).

  2. Determining appropriate assessments (multiple means for students to demonstrate level of learning).

  3. Planning learning and teaching activities (during class preparation, peer interactions, and class session activities students gain practice and feedback related to aims).

The 4As framework

The 4As framework presents a practical and reflective design process you can rely on when creating new courses or redesigning existing courses.

4 A's framework

 

The four framework elements are Atmosphere, Aims, Activities, and Assessment, with each making a specific contribution to the design process:

1. Creating an atmosphere that supports learning, so that students become learners.

2. Writing aims that reflect what we intend as these points of “arrival” for learner.

3. Selecting teaching and learning activities that align with aims and assessments to engage learners constructing meaning and practicing aims-related skills through relevant learning activities.

4. Developing multiple assessment opportunities and formats that engage learners in sequentially and/or cumulatively demonstrating their mastery of the intended aims.

 

 

Using aligned course design, we are guided to link and sequence these core course elements.

 

Begin exploring the 4As framework

Overview of the framework (transcript)

    Atmosphere

    Developing climates for learning

    With 4As Course Design, we begin by thinking about atmosphere – who is gathered together, where they are in their learning processes, and where they venture as learners during, after, and beyond this course. The “we” who come to learning spaces as teachers - and as learners - bring expectations also about what and who matters, about how learning should or could happen, or about what roles and responsibilities the players in this learning space should or might take on.

    As instructors we can survey two domains to understand the atmospheres that provide contexts for our teaching and for student learning: 1) the university, departments, fields, and learning spaces linked to our courses, and 2) the communities, cultures, and purposes that our broad range of students bring into the classrooms we create with them.

    In this, we consider the aspirational and operational norms explicitly or tacitly informing teaching and learning. In working to understand contexts and norms, we can begin to discern and describe the roles of learners and teachers, and our shared responsibilities as people who create and sustain course learning climates.

    Video resources

    Attend to atmosphere through development of personal, social, and instructional roles and responsibilities.

     

    Conversation with Ken Leopold, UMTC Distinguished Teaching Professor, Chemistry, with focus on creating respectful classroom climates for learning.

     

    Conversation with Bob Poch, UMTC Distinguished Teaching Professor, Curriculum and Instruction, focusing on the need to plan for student-student, student-content, and student-teacher connections.

     

    Review planning resources

    • “Atmosphere: Learning Context Factors to Consider,” a reflective planning document with springboard questions for assessing community, institutional, disciplinary, teacher and student contexts that can impact course design
    • “Creating Community in the Classroom," a guide for instructors developed by Emily Ehlinger, a Disability Resource Center consultant whose research focuses on inclusion and accessibility
    • For further reflection on creating an accessible climate for learning consult the “Start Small, Start Now” to learn the 6 skills that provide a foundation for creating accessible, usable digital course materials and resources.

    Aims

    Aiming for course learning

    When talking with peers about courses we teach, most instructors can identify our teaching goals—what we hope students will learn, what we plan to cover, and what we believe students should learn in our courses. Writing up these ideas as Student Learning Aims to anchor our course planning practices is a more difficult task. In part difficult because we need to shift into writing for an audience of learners rather than of peers. With students as the main audience, we shift to writing for people new to our courses, our fields, our core concepts, content, and practices. A second aspect of this difficulty comes from needing to devise a sequence of aims that is logical from a beginner’s, rather than an expert’s, point of view.

    This page incorporates questions and resources to draw on in shaping course aims, which will later inform your decisions about activities, assignments, and assessments students will engage to develop knowledge, monitor progress, and demonstrate learning in your particular course.

    Course learning aims

    Think about the big picture

    Rather than begin with content, begin with developing, drafting, and devising specific course learning aims that you will share with students. These aims will name your expectations about the level and types of learning that learners will need to demonstrate to successfully complete your course.

    The short Aims video (~4 minutes) provides an overview of three levels of aims: ultimate (course level), mediating (assignment/exam level), and foundational (preparing for and in class activities at recall/retrieve/application level).

     

    These are the key questions for generative thinking at this stage:

    • What do I want my students to know, do, and demonstrate during, at the end of, and beyond their time in my course?  These overarching, cognitively complex aims are often named as “goals”, “objectives,” or “outcomes.” In this resource we use the term “ultimate aims” (Nilson, 24).
    • What might be the “mediating” or “foundational” aims that a novice or beginning learner might need to engage and accomplish on the way to demonstrating the ultimate aims I have identified?

    See Nilson’s “Outcomes-Centered Course Design” in Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (John Wiley & Sons, 2016) for a further discussion of aims aware – or outcomes-centered – course design.

    Draft learning aims for your course

    Begin drafting your learning aims as statements of what students will know or do by the end of your course, remembering that aims written for students should be performance oriented and measurable. When drafting your aims, these questions help keep learners and learning in mind:

    • Do the verbs I use in my aims clearly indicate the knowledge or skills I want students to achieve?
    • Are my aims measurable? What learning activities and assessment possibilities come to mind when I consider these aims?  

    Resources to consider in the drafting and revising process:

    • Examples of Learning-Centered Aims
    • “Converting Class Syllabi to the Outcomes Based Teaching and Learning Format” - article that draws on Biggs and Tang “aligned course design” process

    Clarify and communicate your learning outcomes

    In revising learning aims, plan for how you will support the aims within other segments of your syllabus, and about how you will speak about the aims when you initially introduce the course—its aims, activities, assignments, and assessments—to students. Mulling your responses to the following questions will help you refine your learning aims:

    • What do these outcomes look like from a learner’s perspective? Remembering that novices will see the aims differently from experts who suffer from “the curse of knowing”—or forgetting it was we came to learn what we now ask learners to master.
    • What will a student DO to practice and to demonstrate achievement of these aims?
    • How will these outcomes guide your further course and class session design?

    We offer a folder of 3 aims - writing resources linked to Bloom’s and Fink’s learning taxonomy as a resource to support instructors in identifying specific, unambiguous verbs to serve as anchors for the aims we compose.  Once you’ve established learning aims, reviewing course content to discern what must be included to support learning and learners relative to the aims can begin. The Science Education Resource Center website provides—whatever your discipline—an excellent resource guide for filtering content at this stage.

    Activities

    Planning for authentic learning

    Typically the course calendar and syllabus narrative are constructed to serve as an accounting of topics, tasks, readings, and due dates. However, by preparing supplemental assignment and activity documents to that set out the purpose, skills, knowledge, and task requirements, you will provide for your students with a meaningful learning information, and become more aware of what you are asking students to complete, and of how you can leverage assignment and activities to gather data about student learning in process and practice.

    This page offers resources to follow up on the 4As video suggestions for mindfully planning these key components of Teaching for Learning.

    Map out possible learning and teaching activities

    Drawing on guidelines set out in “Backward Design - Sequencing Activities, Assignments, Assessments,”  draft a course calendar to:

    1. link overall learning aims to course units/themes/sessions as part of planning for which concepts to address, and what content to link to teaching and to learning; 
    2. plan learning work students will complete—from preparing for class homework to higher-stakes assessments; and,
    3. note potential teaching strategies that support targeted learning goals.

    Think through two key questions as part of this mapping out:

    1. What concepts central to this course may be difficult for students?
    2. What can I have students do in class so that we work through the difficulties together?

    Next, consider how you might use outside-of-class activities to engage students in their “first exposure” to a key concept, then how you can make use of interactive lecture and active processing and classroom assessment to work through those central, often difficult points during class time.

    Develop class session plans

    Consult the Classroom Patterns resource to begin developing two to three class session plans that could provide a foundation for face-to-face class sessions and online module organization. To maximize learning from outside class activities and to focus on aspects of mastery in class, review the “Teaching for Learning” resources below to think through the types of lectures you might incorporate, to determine roles for discussion in your course, and to determine whether team-based projects could support and deepen student learning.

    Based on decisions will make as you review these resources, return to the course calendar mapping you’ve begun to now begin finalizing text/content choices as well as the placement of formative practice- and application-oriented activities and of summative assessments—those more formal assignments and exams through which students demonstrate their deep, aims-related learning.

    Consult Teaching for Learning resources

    • From Homework to Learning Work – slides with talking points and resources addressing ways to create “preparing for class” activities: discussion moves from deep processing to orienting tasks to providing feedback.
    • Classroom Assessment Techniques – a matrix with descriptions of CATs and ideas for their use in sparking and assessing students’ learning
    • Types of Lectures – a focused listing that categorized lectures in terms of the level of student interaction, the classification of content, and the medium by which information is disseminated.
    • “Getting Lecturers to Take Discussions Seriously,” an article by Stephen Brookfield and Stephen Preskill featured in To Improve the Academy (2000): 232-253. All UMN instructors can access this through academic libraries’ subscriptions to Wiley Online Library Database.
    • A Faculty Guide to Team Projects – a webpage for instructors who are 1) thinking about incorporating a team project* into a course you teach, 2) revising past team or approaches to team projects, or 3) interested in addressing challenges your students have identified as part of learning to successfully navigate and complete cooperative and/or collaborative projects, whatever the course level.

    Assessment

    Demonstrations of learning

    Now that you’ve considered ways to develop a course learning climate, create course learning aims, plan for class sessions, and select learning activities, the next questions to ask yourself are these:

    • How will I know if students have achieved the ultimate course aims?

    • How will I know if are making progress in meeting the learning aims attached to mediating and foundational aims?

    • How will the assessments I have in mind reflect what I want students to see as valuable about studying in this field and working to master course content?

    Reflecting and writing in response to these 3 questions can help us begin the instructional work of aligning assessments with all three levels of intended aims. To think further about types of assessments, we offer the following resources:

    Align assessment with aims

    Types of Assessments

    Considering your course aims, what kind of assignments or tests/exams would measure what you value most, as reflected in the aims? Thoughtfully designed multiple choice tests can measure factual knowledge, as well as application and analysis, but are usually not as effective when it comes to measuring procedural skills, for instance, or the highest levels of learning that require students to create and evaluate. In these cases, performances, problem sets, or essay papers might be better choices. When the assessment is well suited to measuring the target learning aim the two are said to be "in alignment."

    Weighting

    It is also important that your assessments be weighted properly. The more important a learning aim is within the context of the course, the more weight the assessment of that aim should carry. Verify whether the weighting of your assessments align with the relative importance of what you're teaching.

    In creating assessments that align with aims and with activities it can be helpful to think about what the range of assessments might be possible, that might engage your particular students in pursuing questions and doing work associated with your field of study. Rather than focus assessments that are either familiar to you from your past student role or that are embedded in a course you have inherited, consider some of the possibilities set out in these documents:

    Conversation with Maria Gini, UMTC Distinguished Teaching Professor, Computer Science & Engineering, on re-thinking the role of exams in student learning.

    Check for feasibility

    When you are satisfied with the alignment of your aims and assessments, decide when they should occur during the semester. One approach is to insert your tests/exams and assignments in a blank course outline before you insert information about the weekly class sessions’ activities and content possibilities. Creating an outline where all you see are the assessment measures can help you determine whether the assessments are correctly spaced and sequenced, whether you have an appropriate variety of assessments to measure your learning outcomes, and whether the assessments will support the student learning and development you hope will occur during the semester, and whether you have created an appropriate workload for you and your learners.

    Consider workload as well. When checking the feasibility of your assessments, be sure to ask yourself whether the workload you are planning for yourself and your students is reasonable. Finally, when planning assessments, be certain at least one test/exam or major assignment is timed to happen well before the deadline for students to drop the course.

    In checking for feasibility as part of this iterative course design process, returning to two resources from the Activities tab will be helpful: the “Backward Design - Sequencing Activities, Assignments, Assessments,”  will return you to calendar planning, and the Teaching for Learning resources combined with the Classroom Patterns resource will provide you with resources for updating assignments as well as class session and preparation work.

    Research and resources

    Research

    Biggs, John and Tang, Catherine. Teaching for Quality Learning at University (4th ed). Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press, 2011. (First edition: 1999.)

    Fink, L. Dee. Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, 2003.

    Wlodkowski, Raymond. J. & Ginsberg, Margery. B. Diversity and Motivation: Culturally Responsive Teaching. (2nd ed). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

    Wiggins, Grant P., and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA : Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005. (First edition: 1998.)

    Resources

    Atmosphere

    Aims

    Activities

    • “Backward Design - Sequencing Activities, Assignments, Assessments” provides guidelines for drafting a course calendar.
    • Consult the Classroom Patterns resource to begin developing two to three class session plans that could provide a foundation for face-to-face class sessions and online module organization.
    • From Homework to Learning Work – slides with talking points and resources addressing ways to create “preparing for class” activities
    • Classroom Assessment Techniques – a matrix with descriptions of CATs and ideas for their use in sparking and assessing students’ learning
    • Types of Lectures – a focused listing that categorized lectures in terms of the level of student interaction, the classification of content, and the medium by which information is disseminated.
    • “Getting Lecturers to Take Discussions Seriously,” an article by Stephen Brookfield and Stephen Preskill featured in To Improve the Academy (2000): 232-253. UMTC instructors can access this through the Wiley Online Library Database.
    • A Faculty Guide to Team Projects – a webpage for instructors who are 1) thinking about incorporating a team project* into a course you teach, 2) revising past team or approaches to team projects, or 3) interested in addressing challenges your students have identified as part of learning to successfully navigate and complete cooperative and/or collaborative projects, whatever the course level.

    Assessment