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I think there is an important shift happening in higher education today. Just as there was a shift from passive learning to actively learning, much inspired by Barr & Tagg’s (1995) seminal article From Teaching to Learning A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education, I believe there is a current shift happening from Active Learning to Active Assessment.
We have long known that assessment has an enormous impact on what, when and how students learn (Gibbs & Simpson, 2004), and that when assessment is explicitly aligned with the course learning objectives (also sometimes referred to as intended learning outcomes) that student learning experience AND the outcomes of those experiences are greatly improved (Lizzio, Wilson, & Simons, 2002).
Even the most thoughtful, dedicated teachers spend enormously more time worrying about their lectures than they do about their … assignments, which I think is a mistake.
(Wieman, 2007, p. 13)
Boud & Associates’ (2010) Seven Propositions for Assessment Reform in Higher Education provide an effective foundation for ensuring that assessment is implemented to enhance student learning throughout our course and program curricula. I have presented a somewhat paraphrased summary of the principles below.
- Use assessment to engage students in productive learning: align assessment tasks explicitly to what needs to be learned and to the activities that will lead to this learning; assessment tasks should be appropriately scaffolded to encourage progressive learning.
- Use feedback to actively improve student learning: provide clear, helpful feedback; provide specific and timely feedback such that students can continue to grow and improve. Nicol & Macfarlane‐Dick (2006) also provide an enlightening summary of the critical role that feedback plays in the assessment process.
- Students and teachers become partners in learning and assessment: students progressively take responsibility for their learning and develop their meta-cognitive abilities to enhance performance over time; students develop confidence in their ability to judge their work and that of others against criteria and standards; students and instructors actively dialogue and interact about assessment, and associated criteria and standards.
- Students are “inducted” into assessment practices and cultures in higher education: assessment practices are structured progressively to support student success and progressive learning throughout their curriculum; assessment practices are universally designed to respond to student diversity.
- Assessment is placed at the centre of program design: assessment is recognized clearly, as an integral part of curriculum design. Assessment is integrated and embedded strategically, consistently, progressively and complementarity throughout the curriculum. Assessment and feedback methods are directly aligned with program learning outcomes and teaching/learning activities that support the development of these learning outcomes.
- Assessment practices are a focus for instructional and institutional development: academic development activities are provided (and appropriately recognized and rewarded) to ensure that faculty, administrators and instructors develop the skills necessary to implement effective assessment practices in their courses and curricula.
- Assessment provides inclusive and clear evidence of student achievement: Opportunities are provided that allow students to demonstrate their coherent, enduring and integrated learning. Documents that provide evidence of student learning provide a “richness” that is conducive to the integrated and complex nature of learning.
If there is one focus for improving our teaching and learning environments in higher education today, it should be on improving our collective ability to provide assessment practices that truly result in deep and sustained learning throughout our curricula. The resulting impact on student learning experiences and the outcomes thereof would be simply extraordinary! It will take a shift in our thinking of the critical role and impact that assessment has within our curriculum – but I truly believe that the time has come!
Barr, Robert B, & Tagg, John. (1995). From teaching to learning—A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 27(6), 12-26.
Boud, D. , & Associates. (2010). Assessment 2020: Seven propositions for assessment reform in higher education. Sydney: Australian Learning and Teaching Council. Retrieved from http://www.uts.edu.au/research-and-teaching/teaching-and-learning/assessment/assessment-futures website:
Gibbs, Graham, & Simpson, Claire. (2004). Conditions under which assessment supports students’ learning. Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, 1(1), 3-31.
Lizzio, Alf, Wilson, Keithia, & Simons, Roland. (2002). University Students’ Perceptions of the Learning Environment and Academic Outcomes: Implications for theory and practice. Studies in Higher Education, 27(1), 27-52.
Nicol, David J, & Macfarlane‐Dick, Debra. (2006). Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199-218.
Wieman, C. . (2007). Why Not Try a Scientific Approach to Science Education? Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 39(5), 9-15.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of participating in the three-hour graduate student Winter Teaching Workshop, offered here at the University of Guelph. This year’s focus was on the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL). SoTL has certainly received increased attention in higher education, and is said to combine the experience of teaching, the scholarship of research, and the dissemination of this knowledge to the broader benefit of the academic community. In preparing for the workshop, I had the pleasure of revisiting The Scholarship of Teaching: New Elaborations, New Developments (Hutchings and Shulman, 1999). Although now considered somewhat dated, Hutchings’ and Shulman’s elaborations about SoTL still clearly resonate with me – with a somewhat elegant simplicity. They describe SoTL scholars as those,
who are eager to engage in sustained inquiry into their teaching practice and their students’ learning and who are well positioned to do so in ways that contribute to practice beyond their own classrooms. (p. 12)
They further state that although SoTL is a mechanism to advance the profession of teaching, it is clearly not synonymous with excellent teaching. The process of SoTL requires,
a kind of “going meta,” in which faculty frame and systematically investigate questions related to student learning – the conditions under which it occurs, what it looks like, how to deepen it, and so forth – and do so with an eye not only to improving their own classroom but to advance practice beyond it. (p. 13)
They further ask us to imagine institutional research that asks complex and difficult questions such as:
What are our students really learning?
What do they understand deeply?
What kinds of human beings are they becoming – intellectually, morally, in terms of civic responsibility?
How does our teaching affect that learning, and how might it do so more effectively? (p.15)
They conclude by stating that,
[SoTL] creates new meanings through integrating across other inquiries, negotiating understanding between theory and practice. (p.15)
Indeed, Hutchings and Shulman provide a strong foundation for helping to define what has become an evolving and essential practice for exploring the intricacies of teaching and learning in higher education – as well as for furthering our collective commitment to sharing that knowledge for the broader benefit of academe.
Hutchings, P. and Shulman, L.S. 1999. The scholarship of Teaching: New Elaborations, New Developments, Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 31:5, 10-15.
In thinking about some of the external factors which are likely to impact and increase demand for Educational and Curriculum Development at the University of Guelph, the following five came quickly to mind. All of the factors below will impact areas that are core to the expertise, services and support areas that we provide including: curriculum development, review and learning outcomes assessment; faculty and instructional development; evidenced-based classroom practice and research (e.g. student-centred and experiential learning); support for the use of educational technology; and universal instructional design. What other factors would you add to this list?
- Internationally, quality assurance processes and pressures for public accountability for academic programs have been increasing. The Council of Ontario Universities’ Quality Assurance Framework (2010) requires each institution to develop and implement an Institutional Quality Assurance Process (IQAP). The IQAPs are core to quality assurance and continuous improvement, and ensure that all programs are consistent with their Institution’s Degree Level Expectations (e.g. University of Guelph 2012 Senate-approved Learning Outcomes). The IQAP process has placed an increased focus on program-level curriculum review and development.
- PSE is one of the Ontario Government’s highest priority areas. This Government has committed to creating an addition 60,000 spaces in the PSE system and to ensuring that 70% of the population attains post-secondary credentials, while at the same time seeking to improve productivity through innovation and quality in our teaching and learning environments.
- In its discussion paper, Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge, The Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) has called for transformation in the PSE system, with a clear focus on accountability and quality assurance, learning outcomes assessment, on-line/technology enabled learning, experiential learning, employability, acceleration of knowledge creation (e.g. 3 yr. undergrad baccalaureate degrees) and student transferability/mobility (of credits within the system and credentials across systems).
- The 2012 Auditor General’s Report evaluated University Undergraduate Teaching Quality, recommending: improved evaluations of courses and teaching; tenure and promotion processes that reflect the importance of teaching; greater participation in teaching development activities for all faculty; and, measuring the impact of various teaching resources (e.g. class size) on teaching quality and learning outcomes.
- The Provincial government has committed to ensuring accessibility for all learners through the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation and the AODA, placing increased importance on the practices and principles embedded in Universal Instructional Design (UID).
OK, I have to admit that I am guilty. I work for an institution that describes itself as learner-centred, and I teach a course on University Teaching in which I aspire to create a learner-centred environment. Until this point, I don’t think I have taken the time to ACTUALLY articulated (yes, I would say that I have reflected upon it!) what I truly mean by this term that seems to be used so elusively in higher education today. So, here goes…and as a disclaimer, I truly hope that this personal exploration continues to evolve!!
A learner-centreded approach clearly places the learner at the centre of their education, by supporting student development & autonomy, and creating a shared-climate for learning (Newmaster et al., 2006; Weimer, 2002). Learner-centredness puts a clear focus on the outcomes of learning, and recognizes that, “students must be active discoverers and constructors of their own knowledge” (Barr and Tagg, 1995, p.21). Learners are guided by a philosophy of self-efficacy and autonomy, where they develop the knowledge and abilities necessary to embrace learning challenges, to succeed, and to continuously improve. Learner-centred environments facilitate active, enduring, integrated and authentic experiences that, “…enabl[e] the learner to remodel and revise ongoing theories in a manner that makes sense to them” (Newmaster et al., 2006, p. 108). Simply stated, learner-centred environments provide students with an opportunity to actively engage with and to take ownership of their own learning.
Weimer’s (2002) 5 Key Changes to Promote Learner-Centredness (LC) provide an effective framework upon which to articulate a LC approach to higher education:
- The Balance of Power: Key decisions about learning are shared between the instructor and student (e.g. course activities, assignments, setting a climate for learning)
- The Function of Content: Content is used to develop learning skills, to promote self-awareness, and to develop a sense of self-efficacy in their ability to solve learning task
- The Role of the Teacher: To guide and facilitate the process of learning; and to create and maintain conditions that promote student development, autonomy, and a shared-climate for learning
- The Responsibility for Learning: Students take responsibility for their own learning and are motivated to succeed; students do the discovering. Activities and assignments become the vehicles for learning.
- Evaluation Purpose and Process: Generate grades AND promote learning (what I like to refer to as “active assessment”). Aside comment: As there has been a fundamental shift in higher education from passive to active learning, I think there is an evolving shift from active learning to active assessment currently occurring in higher education. As we all know, assessment has an incredible impact on What, When and How students learn!!
Perhaps even more concisely stated, Paris and Combs (2006, p. 576) simple meanings of learner-centredness resonate clearly with me:
- The student is the starting point for curriculum making
- The instructor and students are co-participants in the learning process
- The instructor strives toward intense student engagement with the curriculum
Like I said at the beginning, I am quite certain that my personal reflections regarding learner-centredness will continue to evolve!
Barr, R.B. and Tagg, J. 1995. From Teaching to Learning – A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education. Change. Nov/Dec: 13-25.
Newmaster, S., Lacroix, C.A., and Roosenboom, C. 2006. Authentic learning as a mechanism for learner centredness. International Journal of Learning 13(6): 103-112.
Paris, C. and Combs, B. 2006. Lived meanings: what teachers mean when they say they are learner-centered. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice 12:571-592.
Weimer, M. 2002. Learner-Centered Teaching. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.
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I recently had the pleasure of seeing Dr. Stephen Brookfield present at the University of Guelph’s Teaching and Learning Innovations Conference. Dr. Brookfield’s presentation modeled the way. He reminded us of the importance of silence in the classroom:
silence is an endemic, essential part of the rhythm of the learning process.
We were also reminded of how important it was to reflect critically on our own experiences as learners, as we, ourselves grow as teachers.
How we study our own autobiographies as learners is essential to our development as teachers.
I was left most inspired by Brookfield’s humble and real reflections on the feelings we all face in our teaching practice, and how difficult it is to look beyond our assumed ‘faults’ and ‘vulnerabilities’ as we teach – no matter how experienced we are in the classroom.
So what is critical reflection anyways?
Critical reflection occurs when we analyze and challenge the validity of our presuppositions and assess the appropriateness of our knowledge, understanding and beliefs given our present contexts (Mezirow, 1990). Brookfield (1990) explains that critical reflection involves three phases:
- Identifying the assumptions (“those taken-for-granted ideas, commonsense beliefs, and self-evident rules of thumb” (pg. 177)) that underlie our thoughts and actions;
- Assessing and scrutinizing the validity of these assumptions in terms of how they relate to our ‘real-life’ experiences and our present context(s);
- Transforming these assumptions to become more inclusive and integrative, and using this newly-formed knowledge to more appropriately inform our future actions and practices.
Becoming a critically reflective thinker and practitioner can be challenging. The process of critical reflection may be conceptualized through the descriptions and questions contained in the following two figures (adapted from Brookfield 1990, 1995; Mezirow, 1990).
Brookfield, S.D. 1995. Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. Jossey-Bass, CA.
Brookfield, S.D. 1990. Using critical incidents to explore learners’ assumptions. In pages 177-193 of J. Mezirow (Ed). Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Fransisco.
Mezirow, J. 1990. How critical reflection triggers transformative learning. In pages 1-20 of J. Mezirow (Ed). Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Fransisco.
Graphic courtesy of Doug Schaefer
Constructive Alignment is an approach to course design which begins with the end in mind (i.e. what should students know and be able to demonstrate at the end of the course). It assumes that when learning objectives, assessment methods, and teaching and learning activities are intentionally aligned, that the outcomes of learning are improved substantially (Blumberg, 2009). The process of constructive alignment emphasizes that students are central to the creation of meaning, and must be provided with opportunities to actively select, and cumulatively construct their own knowledge (Biggs, 1996). Meyers and Nulty (2009, p.567) provide 5 curriculum design recommendations to designing a course based upon Biggs’ approach to constructive alignment.
To maximise the quality of learning outcomes, we, as academics, need to develop courses in ways that provide students with teaching and learning materials, tasks and experiences which:
(1) are authentic, real-world and relevant;
(2) are constructive, sequential and interlinked;
(3) require students to use and engage with progressively higher order cognitive processes;
(4) are aligned with each other and the desired learning outcomes; and
(5) provide challenge, interest and motivation to learn.
The effect of applying these principles is to [create a] learning system in ways that require students to adopt a deep learning approach in order to meet the course’s assessment requirements – which, in turn, meets the desired learning outcomes.
They further emphasize that teaching is inherently complex, and that these principles must be adapted to each instructor’s individual teaching approaches, strengths and to the realities that we face in the many varying contexts in higher education. Fink’s (2003) 5 principles of course design also provide some practical insight, which can be adapted to the many varying context that we may face:
(1) Challenge higher level of learning, by defining learning objectives at a high cognitive level
(2) Use active forms of learning
(3) Give frequent and immediate feedback
(4) Use structured sequence of teaching and learning activities to scaffold learning
(5) Use objective and fair system of grading and assessment
Backwards Course Design
There is little doubt that individual instructor’s can have an enormous impact on the quality of students’ learning experience and on the outcomes they achieve, “…high level engagement ought not be left to serendipity, or to individual student brilliance, but should be actively encouraged by the teacher” (Biggs, 1996, p. 353). The process of constructive alignment begins by defining clearly the course learning objectives, such that both the students and instructor are aware of the essential knowledge and abilities that they should be able to demonstrate at the end of the course. Once the learning objectives are clearly defined, the feedback and assessment methods which provide an opportunity for the students and instructor to formatively and summatively assess their achievement of these objectives, should be articulated and developed. Meyers and Nulty (2009) emphasize that assessments tasks should hold together and sequence all other course components. Once the alignment between the learning objectives and assessment strategies has been established, the teaching and learning activities that best support an active and deep approach to learning should be planned. Knight (2001) describes this stage as drawing together the processes, encounters and engagements that best make for effective learning, given both the context and the subject-matter content.
We have heard much in academe about the importance of an outcomes-based approach to education. We must continue to add voice by discussing the importance of quality learning environments that emphasize an active, deep and student-centred approach to learning. Although they provide an effective and efficient means upon which to organize, structure and account for learning, quality higher education goes much beyond outcomes and objectives. We must consistently strive to communicate the inherent complexities embedded in the many disciplines and contexts within teaching and learning in higher education. By not taking the ‘constructive’ out of constructive alignment, I think that each of us has the capacity to inspire excellence in student learning.
Biggs, J. 1996. Enhancing teaching through constructive alignment. Higher Education 32:347-364.
Blumberg, P. 2009. Maximizing learning through course alignment and experience with different types of knowledge. Innovative Higher Education 34:93-103.
Fink, L.D. 2003. Integrated Course Design. The Idea Centre. Accessed at: http://www.theideacenter.org/sites/default/files/Idea_Paper_42.pdf
Knight, P.T. 2001. Complexity and curriculum: a process approach to curriculum making. Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 6: 369-381.
Meyers, N.M. and Nulty, D.D. 2009. How to use (five) curriculum design principles to align authentic learning environments, assessment, students’ approach to thinking and learning outcomes. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 34: 565-577.
I recently co-authored a Guide to support programs, departments and instructors at the University of Guelph as they continue to develop and assess learning outcomes such that curricula become increasingly coherent, aligned and evidenced. We highlight the following 5 steps to curriculum development.
Curriculum committees are often overwhelmed by the inherent complexities associated with assessing and improving the curriculum. Curriculum development must be viewed as a continuous process (Wolf, 2007).
To manage this process, it is invaluable for committees to establish a manageable framework for continuous program assessment and development by establishing a strategic planning process based on the following questions:
1. Why? (What are your specific goals and objectives for curriculum assessment and improvement?)
2. Who? (Who will you involve? Who are the target stakeholders?)
3. When? (What are your timelines?)
4. How? (What assessment method is most appropriate?)
5. What? (What data will you collect to help inform?)
An outcomes-based approach to education is inherently dependent upon the identification and communication of clearly defined learning outcomes, which describe the essential and disciplinary knowledge and abilities that students should possess upon completion of the program. The articulation of meaningful and measurable learning outcomes that are contextualized within the discipline may require substantial consultations with a range of stakeholders (e.g. alumni, students, faculty, employers) (Green et al. 2009). As a valuable first step it is often helpful to discuss, communicate, and review the broader context of the program:
• What is the purpose of program? Why should it be offered? What is the need?
• What will make this program innovative and distinctive?
What unique areas of focus or strengths does this program offer?
• How will this program contribute to students’ academic and professional development? How will it be of benefit to them?
• How will the program fulfill its vision and goals? What signature pedagogies (i.e. teaching/learning/assessment activities) should the instructors and
students be involved in?
Learning outcomes provide an opportunity for programs to effectively review and enhance the alignment between the planned, delivered and experienced curriculum (Bath et al., 2004). A comprehensive approach to learning outcomes assessment ensures that decisions related to change are informed by data collected from multiple sources. Recommended methods include multi-stakeholder questionnaires, focus groups and Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis, curriculum mapping, curriculum embedded assessment, and reviews of both scholarly literature and of analogous programs.
4. Improve and Align
Data collected through learning outcomes assessment can be used not only to account for student learning, but also ought to be used to engage faculty in critical discussions related to curriculum improvement. Data can be
used to help ensure that decisions related to the alignment between the intended learning outcomes and the educational experiences embedded within the curriculum are evidenced-based. It is at this stage that instructors
and curriculum committees improve, validate and align the curriculum by identifying and leveraging the program strengths, and developing recommendations and strategies to deal with the gaps, redundancies and challenges apparent in the curriculum. Committees may wish to explore specifically:
1. the essential educational experiences that allow students to successfully develop and achieve the intended learning outcomes, including assessment and feedback strategies and signature teaching and
2. the progression of student learning throughout the program, including foundational and capstone experiences, and course sequences and scaffolding; and,
3. course weighting and the balance of between core and elective requirements.
5. Monitor and Adapt
An outcomes-based approach to curriculum development requires developing a focus on continuous improvement (Wolf, 2007). In order to monitor and advance our academic programs, it is important to assess continually that the intended student learning outcomes are actually being achieved within the curriculum. An ongoing multistakeholder curriculum plan provides an opportunity for instructors to collaboratively discuss and propose changes to the curriculum based on data from multiple sources. In order for this process to succeed, learning outcomes must be part of a living curriculum – that is they must be clearly
articulated in a way that is contextualized within the discipline, communicated broadly, continually reviewed and monitored, and effectively integrated into decision-making processes. Learning outcomes provide an opportunity for programs, departments and instructors to create a curriculum that is reviewed and enhanced regularly to support alignment between the planned, enacted and experienced curriculum (Bath et al., 2004).
Bath, D. Smith, C., Stein, S. and Swann, R. 2004 Beyond mapping and embedding graduate attributes: bring together quality assurance and action learning to create a validated and living curriculum. Higher Education Research and Development 23(3): 313-328.
Green, W., Hammer, S. and Star, C. 2009. Facing up to the challenge: why is it so hard to develop graduate attributes. Higher Education Research and Development 28: 17-29.
Wolf, P. 2007. A model for facilitating curriculum development in higher education: a faculty-driven, data-informed, and educational developer-supported approach. New Directions for Teaching and Learning 112: 15-20.