Constructive alignment / learning outcomes: Biggs & Tang

Constructive alignment: Biggs and Tang

Biggs and Tang[1] provide a useful analogy on the importance of constructing learning outcomes and associated activities to encourage higher order learning. This model looks at two students: Susan and Robert.

Susan is a traditional academically-gifted student who engages with the subject instinctively on a deeper level: understanding, relating to and applying previous knowledge. Robert, a less academic student, responds to the same content using a surface approach – his efforts are concentrated on making notes and memorising rather than forming a deeper understanding of the material.

The implication is that while Susan naturally goes through deeper cognitive processes in relation to all academic material, Robert will only do so when set a task which requires higher order skills. Biggs concludes that a task must be constructed specifically with elements of higher order skills embedded into it in order to elicit the desired response from students. This also applies to the way learning objectives are constructed.

Biggs and Tang describe this as ‘constructive alignment’: if you want deep learning to occur, all elements of the curriculum must be aligned.

SOLO (Structure of the observed learning outcome)

The SOLO model enables us to go further and define and measure learning in terms of complexity. First devised by Biggs and Collis[2] in 1982, this is a constructivist approach to developing learning outcomes. The model enables us to assess student outcomes in terms of quality, not just what individual elements students complete correctly.

Students progress from only picking up a few aspects of the task (uni-structural), then several aspects which are unrelated (multi-structural), then learn how to integrate these into a whole (relational) and, finally, students are able to generalise that whole to as yet untaught applications (extended abstract).

In order for students to construct the necessary meaning from what they do in order to learn, the teacher must align the planned learning activities and assessment with the learning outcomes.  Indeed, learning activities and assessment must match learning outcomes to the extent that verbs in learning outcomes should match the activities which are to be undertaken.

The ‘SOLO Taxonomy with sample verbs’ model helpfully illustrates how the five levels of the SOLO taxonomy can be related to verbs which you can use when writing learning outcomes.


The next section outlines a variety of learning styles which different students may prefer.


References for this page

[1] Biggs, J. and Tang, K. 2011. Teaching for quality learning at University. 4th ed. Maidenhead: Oxford University Press.

[2] Biggs, J. and Collis, K. 1982. Evaluating the Quality of Learning: the SOLO taxonomy. New York: Academic Press.