Are you in alignment?


Meredith Singleton

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We hear about alignment in many areas of our lives. Our bodies. Our tires. The stars. But what about our courses? Is your course in alignment?

I started teaching as an adjunct with a canned course. I played no role in developing outcomes, curriculum, or assessments. I simply took the syllabus, assignments, and textbook the institution provided and went to work. When I started teaching my own courses, I had a little more freedom, but I still started with department-determined course outcomes. Sure, I tweaked here and there, and created unit-level material when I transitioned to online teaching, but I hadn’t ever taken a systematic look at my overall course alignment until last week.

I recently completed two different professional development activities focused on course development. Each asked me to review my course to determine its alignment. If you haven’t taken an intentional, strategic review your course alignment, you should. Your students will appreciate it even if they never know you did it.

So, how would you start such a review? Let’s run through a quick checklist to help you determine if your course is in or out of alignment.

  1. You have clear, measurable course learning outcomes. For some of you, course learning outcomes are pre-determined by your department. Even so, or if you’ve written your own, take a close read with this in mind: Do your outcomes start with action words like “recall”, “identify”, “describe”, or “list”? Or, do they start with words like “understand”, “know”, “believe”, or “grasp”? If you’re using this latter set of words, let me ask you a question. How will you assess those outcomes?

Outcomes with “learn” and “grasp” may describe what you want students to know at the end of the course, but what assessments would accurately measure whether or not your student “learned” something? What you’ll find is that your assessments aren’t necessarily measuring if they’ve learned the material. They’re actually measuring whether or not your students can do something with the material. Try writing your outcome starting with, “At the end of this course, you will be able to _____.” Action-oriented outcomes are measurable and observable, and are the first step toward course alignment.

  1. You have unit-level outcomes that advance course outcomes. Now, let’s go one level deeper. With course outcomes in hand, review each unit and determine how it works toward those larger goals.

If you don’t have unit-level outcomes, now is a great to write them. At this point, I find it helps to write out my unit-level outcomes—again, they’re measurable or observable—in a table with my course-level goals at the top. This helps me visually see where alignment exists or not.

  1. Your assignments measure unit-level and course-level outcomes. Let’s dig down even deeper now. Looking at your assignments and activities carefully, how do they support both the unit-level and course-level outcomes? Again, a table is helpful here.

If you’ve been teaching for a while, you’ve probably made adjustments to your courses over time. Added assignments in. Taken tasks out. Updated activities. But, this is why we should all take a step back every now and again and review our courses from top to bottom. Sometimes, through the process of course improvements, our courses fall out of alignment. It’s okay. We’ve all been there. Making adjustments is usually fairly easy and certainly worth the effort.

  1. You’ve included both formative and summative assessments. Now that you have those assignments in front of you, have you included a variety of assessments? In online coursework, formative assessments (those smaller, low-stakes tasks like discussion posts or drafts) can really help students (and you) determine how they’re progressing throughout modules or units.

Formative assessments are also one of the reasons online instruction can be time consuming. But, they’re worth their weight in time. Including checkpoints along the way toward that larger summative assessment (an exam, an essay, or final) will help you identify with students where they need to focus their efforts, rather than taking a splatter approach to learning the content.

  1. You’ve included clear rubrics or grading guides. Finally, once you have your outcomes defined, and your formative and summative assessments included, you need to provide students with the necessary information to perform well and meet expectations.

We’ve probably all been in a situation where we weren’t sure what our teacher or boss wanted. So, we took a stab in the dark only to have missed miserably. The fallout from a situation like that can be disastrous for an online student. Prevent those moments of misery by giving students the tools to perform well. Provide detailed rubrics, checklists, or charts that will help students understand how and why you grade the way you do. These tools also help you as an instructor to grade evenly, fairly, and thoroughly.

So, remember, outcomes, activities, assessments. Do they support each other? Running through this short checklist will strengthen your course and the online learning experience for you and your students. 

OLC’s Quality Scorecard is great tool for measuring and improving the quality of your online programs. If you are an OLC Institutional Member, you have full access and use of the scorecard. OLC experts can train you on the use of the scorecard too! Get expert training on the use of the scorecard in this workshop: Strategies for Improvement: Quality Scorecard May 15th, 2015, or become a master with Quality Scorecard Mastery Series


Meredith Singleton is currently the Associate Director of Educational Outreach, Online Learning Programs at Northern Kentucky University where she is also a member of the English faculty teaching professional writing courses both online and face-to-face. She is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cincinnati studying rhetoric and composition with a focus in technical communication and online pedagogy. Her research focuses on assessment and feedback in online teaching, discovering ways faculty can better allocate time to course development and design. She is also active in military veteran student research and scholarship, and assists faculty in helping military veteran students transfer professional training to the academic classroom. She is a certified Quality Matters peer reviewer, freelance technical writer, and contract editor.


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