Topic design basics

This resource introduces some basic topic design considerations, and offers a range of ideas for practice, with an emphasis on designing for online

Constructive alignment

3 overlapping sticks

Imagine that there is a 'skeleton of logic' behind the topic that holds the approaches and strategies together. This can be conceived as a triangle and is often referred to as constructive alignment, developed from John Biggs's work on constructive alignment, in which the intentions, learning activities and assessment items 'align' in the sense that they inform each other, together providing the scope of the topic. In this representation of constructive alignment, teaching activities are also represented, acting as a kind of glue that facilitates the connection between the three elements.

Checking for constructive alignment is a useful early exercise when designing your topic, because it ensures that the scope of the topic is right – everything that is in it is there for a reason: neither too little nor too much.

It may be useful to provide the student with a schema that illustrates how the learning outcomes, assessments and activities of the topic are aligned. This schema may be partly indicated in the Statement of Assessment Methods (SAMs) and/or expressed visually as a topic map.

Learning outcomes x assessment items

Learning outcomes for a topic are expressed as measurable verbs so that they can be demonstrated and assessed. A useful device typically used for this purpose is Bloom's taxonomy in which 'orders' of learning are conceived for different learning purposes. The verbs associated with each of the orders suggest the types of assessment activities and how they might be demonstrated. For instance, learning rules or facts might be expressed 'list the types...' whereas grappling with complexity might be expressed 'analyse the types...' – the assessment criteria are looking for, respectively, a list or an analysis.  

Bloom's (adapted) taxonomy (Krathwohl, 2002): 

    • Create (design, develop, construct, create, produce, publish)
    • Evaluate (appraise, evaluate, justify, argue, reflect)
    • Analyse (compare, contrast, critique, examine, interpret)
    • Apply (demonstrate, illustrate, use, interpret)
    • Understand (describe, discuss, identify, explain, report, define)
    • Remember (list, state, recall)
Assessment items x engagement activities

Learning activities can be seen as engagement with the subject matter, whereas assessment items are formal assessment requirements for the topic. Ideally, these two things come together to create engaging assessments and assessable activities. Engagement activities might also include orientation activities, communications within a topic, practice activities, self-checks, and other activities that stimulate curiosity and provide opportunities to explore in low-stakes ways that are not necessarily connected to formal assessment.

One way to value effort of this nature (rather than the effect or result) is to design in a participation assessment item that 'counts' the fact that the learner has, for instance, entered the discussion forum, opened the resource, or completed the self-check regardless of the quality of their efforts. Another approach is to design formative assessment that stages drafts or sections of an assessment item as discreet activities. These types of assessment activities lend themselves to a participatory approach whereby ideas might be shared and tested within a forum, for instance.

Engagement activities x learning outcomes 

Engagement activities, even if they are extra to the assessment requirements for the topic should still align with the learning outcomes. That is, the activities engage the student towards the intentions of the topic.

Teaching and feedback activities 

The teaching and feedback component of the model connects the elements together both through the design of the online environment and its activities, and through the facilitation of the activities online. Feedback in particular is an essential part of the process, looping assessment back to learning.