Alignment in action – a visual model to design university courses

The model can help educators and institutions plan, iterate, and develop engaging courses and study programs focused on student learning.

Successful teaching and learning at university level depends on a complex interplay between the curriculum, exam forms, student background and motivation, teaching methods, and the learning environment.

According to educational researcher John Biggs’ book on teaching for quality learning, course planning can be greatly enhanced by aligning the key elements of the course: what students should learn, how they can demonstrate their learning, and the teaching methods to support their learning process.

One way to make sure the elements align is to use backwards design, and plan the intended learning outcomes BEFORE planning the exam and the teaching methods.

You can backwards design a course by answering the following questions:

  1. What skills best describe the students’ intended learning outcomes?
  2. What are the appropriate assessment forms that let students demonstrate their knowledges and skills?
  3. What teaching methods will best support students to develop the relevant skills?

To get an overview of the relevant skills that describe learning outcomes, and the hierarchy between them, many use the SOLO/Bloom taxonomies as guides. Both models sort skills (verbs) in order of complexity, and the resulting hierarchies provide a starting point for discussions about a progression for skills and competencies.

In my work with faculty development at the University of Oslo, I have facilitated several courses and workshops on course planning, but I have not come across a user-friendly model to support productive conversations about skills and course planning. As a practitioner, I have experienced a need for a model that provides an overview of learning outcomes, exam and teaching methods, sorted according to increasing complexity, combined with a layout that supports course planning with backwards design.

A model for comprehensive course planning

The visual model presented here draws upon both backwards design and the SOLO taxonomy to support educators to match learning outcomes (verbs) with appropriate assessment forms and teaching methods in higher education.

A visual model to spark conversations about course planning. The model is based on backwards design to match intended learning outcomes to assessment forms and teaching methods in higher education, and adds an important dimension of increasing complexity in skills and activities. The X-axis structures the steps in the planning process according to the backwards design principle (numbered 1.-3.), and the Y-axis indicates increasing complexity of verbs and activities, color coded as simple (yellow), moderate (teal) and complex (pink). Graphics: Å.H.Eikenes

The verbs for learning outcomes progress from simple (concrete) to complex (abstract). The SOLO and Bloom taxonomies define five to six levels of progression, but to provide more flexibility I have chosen to simplify the hierarchy to three levels: simple, moderate and complex, color coded as yellow, teal and pink throughout. In line with the other models, complex skills require students to master the skills on “lower” levels.

The model is published with a Creative Commons Attribution. Feel free to share, edit and reproduce the model as you see fit.

In the following paragraphs, I will outline some of the potential benefits of the model.

Benefit for educators

Educators can use the model as a stepwise guide to course planning. By following the sequence from left to right, you start by selecting the appropriate verbs that match the intended learning outcomes for the course. This first choice helps decide on assessment forms and teaching methods by selecting activities on a similar level (the same color).

For example, a teacher who wants the students to learn to analyse, discuss and present (all colored in teal), will discover that a multiple choice exam and a lecture series might not be the best fit (yellow), and can instead use the model to decide on project work and peer feedback (both in teal) as the key activities in the course.

Course planning is always an iterative process, and it is not uncommon to adjust and re-align learning outcomes, assessment forms and teaching methods over time, based on experiences, conversations and evaluations. The overview presented in the model can support iterative course planning and conversations with other teachers about revision and new ideas.

Benefit for institutions

Faculties and departments can revise and expand the model to match their professions and traditions. It may be relevant and useful to add verbs that are specific for the disciplines, for example in law, literature, or medicine.

The model can also facilitate discussions on how to develop work-related courses and programs for undergraduate students, and how to strengthen PhD-courses to support candidates to succeed in careers outside of academia.

The broad conversation required to successfully co-create a model specific for a discipline will support faculty to develop an awareness and a vocabulary around course planning and student learning. This shared knowledge and framework can support long-term faculty development.

Visualize development

The model readily lends itself to visualize the increasingly complex skills students develop as they progress through their study programs. The model can help plan a step-wise progression from courses designed to meet students at early bachelor level to courses aimed towards PhD-candidates.

In the four figures below, I have highlighted the most relevant verbs, assessment forms and teaching methods for each stage, as an example. The gray boxes indicate skills and activities outside of the main focus for courses at the specific level, and the overview can help sort and adjust courses to align as a continuum through the study program.

The most relevant skills and activities at different levels will most likely vary according to tradition and discipline, and can also develop as programs mature and shift focus over time.

Four stages of aligned courses. The most relevant verbs, assessment forms and teaching methods at each of the four stages (early and late bachelor level, master level and PhD level) are color coded in yellow, teal and pink, whereas the less relevant boxes are colored gray. Note that verbs at early bachelor level indicate a majority of concrete skills, whereas PhD-level courses include a majority of abstract skills. Graphics: Å.H.Eikenes

Benefit for administrators and leaders

The stepwise progression over time provides a clear and flexible framework for administrators to engage in conversations with educators about course planning and revision. The model provides a framework for language use and communication with students, and can support administrative staff to perform quality control of relevant information.

At the same time, the model clearly demonstrates the need to plan learning outcomes, assessment forms and teaching activities as an integrated set of choices, and not as three separate events handled by discrete administrative personnel.

The model can also work as a shared reference for annual revision and reports, and also provide a guide for future development of study programs that supports students to build knowledge, skills and competencies over time.

Future work

The model is a first attempt to to support conversation about teaching and learning, and I am excited by the many positive responses so far.

The model will of course have limitations and room for improvement, and some verbs or activities may fit better at a different level, or may even fit at multiple levels, depending on context.

In addition, the lists of assessment forms and teaching activities are not exhaustive. Assessment forms also include formative assessment, the list of teaching activities can be complemented with exercises for active learning, and students needs a safe and inclusive learning environment to thrive.

I hope the model sparks new ideas across disciplines and roles, and I look forward to a broad conversation about quality teaching in higher education.

Let me know if you use the model to redesign your course, or if you find the model helpful to talk to colleagues about increasing the skill level of your master courses. Or maybe you have suggestions for verbs or assessment forms that could expand or adapt the model?

Happy course planning!

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