Some Thoughts about Alignment

I’m not sure if it’s because we’ve just passed through midterms at my university, or because I’ve been working on course (re)design as part of my teaching center duties, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of alignment lately. Those familiar with the methodology of “backward design” will recognize alignment as the glue that holds a course design together. For those not as familiar, backward design is exactly what it says: begin with the end, and work backwards to complete the design.

For a course, that means starting with the outcomes–what are the larger goals of the course? What do I want students to take from my course? What do I want them to still have from my course one, or four, or ten years after? Once I’ve articulated those goals, I work from those to frame specific objectives (measurable outcomes I can use to track students’ progress towards the goals). Working from the objectives, I plan assessments (writing projects, exams, other types of measures) that build students’ proficiency within those objectives. Finally, I plan activities–individual class sessions or portions thereof–that help students acquire what they need to do well with the course material and assessments, and thus move themselves towards fulfilling the course objectives and accomplishing the larger goals. Like a set of Russian nesting dolls, everything fits with something bigger, and the course moves into alignment.

Thinking about teaching and learning through the lens of backward design has been extraordinarily useful for me. In particular, I’ve rethought the way I administer exams after asking myself what larger purpose they were serving, and what objectives I truly wanted to be able to assess. I had never attached specific learning outcomes to individual exams before, but when I started doing so, I was amazed at how much the exams I had been giving were out of alignment with what I had established as the important outcomes of my courses. I wanted my courses to develop larger habits of mind; I wanted students to do the type of metacognitive work that could help them become better, more analytical learners, and thus take ownership of their education. But my exams were mostly targeted at the “understand and remember” level of Bloom’s Taxonomy, assessing students’ grasp of particular course content, but not necessarily asking them to do much more with it. To be sure, to “understand and remember” content is important (it’s the foundation of the Bloom’s “pyramid” for a reason), but if that’s the dominant focus, then students won’t be challenged to do the higher-order cognitive work upon which I was basing my course goals. The same was true, to an extent, for other assignments in the course as well. So I revamped most of my assessments, including a significant rethinking of the type of research projects I wanted my students to engage in. Now, there is more choice, a variety of pathways to meet the course objectives, and ample opportunities for students to receive a lot of formative assessment before doing the work that I assess summatively. This framework aligns with the goals I’ve articulated for my courses in a much more organic and authentic manner.

This type of design thinking, in particular the focus on alignment, has also made its way into some of the questions I’m asking myself about history teaching in general. In particular, I’m spending a lot of time thinking about whether or not some of the venerable features of the standard higher-ed history curriculum align with the goals we say we have for the teaching of history on the college level.  Take the standard survey course, for example. As it’s taught in most of our institutions, it’s chronologically chunked-out sequence of courses that are structured around a comprehensive, narrative framework. We say they’re aimed at helping students acquire the skills that historians use–critical thinking and analysis, for example–but as they’re taught at a large number of institutions, they’re brisk narrative tours through historical eras delivered in an almost completely expository style. For the most part, it’s the structural features of our colleges and universities that dictate this approach–several hundred students in an auditorium with fixed rows of seats all angled towards the front lends itself to a lecture format more than anything else. The traditional definition of “historical literacy” is decidedly content-based. Since most institutions either cannot or will not commit the resources for adequate faculty staffing (and compensation), the student-to-faculty ratio in a typical intro section continues to climb off the charts. Individual faculty can, and often do, pull out all the pedagogical stops to make these courses interesting and valuable experiences for their students. But they shouldn’t have to fight larger structures in order to do so. There are schools which cap class sizes for their introductory courses. There are departments that confound the typical notion of a survey course by altering the traditional chronology, or introducing thematic elements as their courses’ structure. Other departments don’t offer survey courses at all, choosing instead to offer introductory level seminars on a particular theme or topic aimed at developing historical thinking for their students. There are plenty of individual and collective models out there for rethinking the types of courses we offer, particularly at the introductory level.

So is getting rid of the survey course the key to aligning our curricula with our larger disciplinary goals? I’m not sure. What I do know is that we would be well-served as a discipline if we applied the backward design methodology to the structures we’ve put in place for teaching History on the college level. When things are out of alignment on the course level, both students and instructors feel it–whether it’s an explicit awareness or a vague sense of dissatisfaction. When they’re out of alignment on the curricular level, I think we see the results in such phenomena as lower enrollments and declining numbers of majors. I don’t think there’s one True Way  to produce a curriculum that is well-aligned with both institutional and disciplinary goals, but rather a range of options that fit a variety of contexts. But we won’t find any of them without undertaking the type of critical reflection about goals and the means to reach them that we do for our own courses and scaling it up to the curricular level. What seems clear to me, though, is that creating alignment is the key to effective History pedagogy, whether in individual courses or larger curricula. 

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