Determining where the constructive alignment model fits into the didactic landscape is easy enough. Biggs and Tang expressly point out that their model can be found within the constructivist paradigm, with all the associated consequences: according to this framework, knowledge cannot be objectified and transported; rather it can only be constructed. Processes of active memory construction are necessary in order to process incoming impulses and “match” neurons with perceptions. This, in turn, makes knowledge subjective: the instructor has limited influence on which, as well as how, information is received and processed, particularly because individuals’ prior knowledge also affects what is learned and in which way. Strictly speaking, in your courses, you can only create learning opportunities that help students actively acquire knowledge. What exactly they end up learning cannot be predicted by the instructor.
This is another reason why evaluations are important. Only via evaluations can you assess whether students have learned something in your course – and if so, what exactly they have learned. The possible forms this evaluation can take are manifold. They can be formative or summative; can assess quality or quantity of learning; and can be based on satisfaction, learning success, or transfer. All of this information can assist you to continuously improve your teaching.
However, there is one thing to keep in mind with regard to all forms of evaluation: you need to be aware in advance of where, i.e. with which specific aspect of learning, your interest lies. This is because it is not possible to ascertain information on all aspects of the learning of your students with only one evaluation, and you must also be able to draw conclusions based on the results.
The summative evaluation occurs at the end of the course – usually in the form of a questionnaire. Summative evaluations provide information on whether a specific goal has been achieved or not. Sometimes, conclusions can be drawn from the acquired data on the possible reasons for success or failure of said goal.
This form of evaluation accompanies the progression of the course. The aim of the formative evaluation is to measure learning progress at regular intervals in order to adjust the course correspondingly during the semester.
Usually, a qualitative evaluation takes the form of an interview. It is carried out in recognition of the fact that certain aspects cannot be expressed statistically. Their implementation and evaluation are particularly complex, but they provide insights that would not be possible with quantitative questionnaires.
The primary purpose of this evaluation is to find out whether the students enjoyed a course. Depending on the questionnaire design, you may also be able to learn something about their reasons for this – from the perspective of constructive alignment, however, the added value of insights from a satisfaction evaluation is relatively low, as you still do not know whether your students have learned something.
Basically, each type of exam is a learning success evaluation. If the course is “aligned”, one can draw relatively good conclusions about the quality of the didactic design. But even this evaluation form falls short in the context of constructivism. Whether and that a student has learned something does not mean that the acquired knowledge will be used actively and in other contexts.
Knowledge remains inert until it is actively used in new contexts. If your goal as an instructor is that students not only study for the exam but also – to use a somewhat hackneyed phrase – for life, you should focus not on learning success but on the transfer of knowledge. However, evaluating such transfer proves to be a difficult task – Rolf Meier advises allowing at least four weeks to pass after the end of a course before carrying out a transfer evaluation. And even if knowledge transfer is detectable, you cannot be certain it is directly due to you and your teaching efforts.