By Mei Anne Hills, Undergraduate Student, Cognitive Science

The rapid transition from in-class to online learning has provided both challenges and opportunities for those involved, but continuing to ensure proper curriculum alignment can increase success for both students and instructors during these unprecedented times. Curriculum alignment involves aligning teaching methods, learning objectives and evaluations within a single course, but also involves alignment at a higher level, such as within a department (Fraser & Bosanquet, 2006). In this post, I’d like to share my perspective as a student on current practices and provide suggestions that instructors can implement in their online classes.

Curriculum alignment in a single course

When considering course alignment, it is important to distinguish between lower-level thinking, which is understanding and remembering concepts, and higher-level thinking, which involves analyzing and applying knowledge (Pape-Zambito & Mostrom, 2018). Often, instructors are already accustomed to using high-level thinking skills through research and teaching experience, whereas students coming into university have not developed these skills yet (Pape-Zambito & Mostrom, 2018).

In an online introductory class I took, PowerPoints were useful for conveying factual information, while class activities, such as demonstrations and worksheets, helped consolidate the knowledge from the PowerPoints. The evaluations were multiple-choice and assessed lower-level thinking, including questions related to both the lectures and the activities. Another introductory course I took used multiple-choice tests and the exam was an essay assessing higher-level thinking; however, there were no class activities to facilitate this. As a student, this was frustrating because the lectures aligned with the course objectives, but the final evaluation didn’t align with those objectives or the lectures.

To help achieve curriculum alignment in a single course, instructors could explicitly state how they plan to meet the course objectives and how the activities and evaluations will achieve that. For example, if one of the course objectives is to develop critical thinking skills, then describing how and which activities will develop those skills can help students make the connection between the activity and the skill. In asynchronous classes, I’ve found it helpful when an instructor has recorded a short video explaining the class goals for that week and future directions of the course rather than sending one long email, which seems more time consuming. Videos are a personal touch to establish a connection between the instructor and the student and can help students reflect on their own learning.

Curriculum alignment among multiple courses

Misalignment among different courses within a program can cause frustration for both students and instructors (Meij & Merx, 2018). A course may be well-designed and correctly aligned but may not be as successful if all the skills required by the student to take that class were not achieved in the prerequisite or were not part of the prerequisite objectives (Meji & Merx, 2018).

As a student, it’s frustrating when an instructor has certain expectations of what we should already know, when in fact it has not been taught previously. Courses may be taught differently year to year, especially with the recent shift to online classes. The instructor, class activities and assessments may have changed, the course may have been taught synchronously before, or there might be limited access to materials for labs. It’s important to follow up with students and other instructors rather than assume course objectives have previously been achieved, and to explicitly communicate how the material being taught in one class will transfer over to more advanced classes.

It might be helpful for professors to ask students at the beginning of the semester about their background in a certain subject, which could be done through online polling, and to recognize that not all students will have the same background. A good example of program alignment from my experience was when the instructor explicitly told the class that they were communicating with other instructors in the department regarding the skills that they were teaching our class, as well as getting feedback from those other instructors concerning prerequisite skills.

It’s important to acknowledge that everyone is doing their best to create a positive educational experience in these unprecedented times. The experience of online teaching and learning has been a learning curve for all and implementing or improving course alignment can be a part of this learning curve. This post stems from my research interests and values in improving online learning and education, and I think this is a great area of research to expand upon.

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