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Setting your course to the appropriate level

Horizontal alignment is the degree to which assessment matches the corresponding content standards for a subject area at a particular grade level.

Horizontal alignment is the degree to which an assessment matches
the corresponding content standards for a subject area at a particular grade level
(Porter, 2002; Webb, 1997a; Webb, 199

In terms that we use at UniSA, it means:

  • aligning the assessment to the course objectives, and making sure that it is at an appropriate level, and
  • delivering the course content which has been decided in the program design, and for which your course has been vertically aligned.

  • Assessment, in terms of alignment, is about evidence. That is, it is evidence that a student has obtained a level of competence in relation to one or more course objectives. The assessment needs to be supported by appropriate activities at course level.
  • Activities relates to students engaging in the types of activities that will allow them to prepare for the assessment that will demonstrate competence against an objective. Think here not just about cognition, but about the full range of activities the student will need. For example, if the assessment asks for a report, then you need to make sure that the students can already write a report. If not, then you need to teach them.

If we had a simple, flat curriculum, such as you would see in a primary school, the vertical alignment would be how the grades aligned up (Reception to year 7), and the horizontal alignment would be alignment within a grade.

But at University, we have such a complex, flexible and dynamic learning environment that we have to be careful about what we claim are connections at the same year level. For example, although two courses may be delivered in first year, we would expect to have some learning areas deliver higher learning outcomes in an SP5 course than an SP2 course (and we would have planned for this in our vertically alignment).

When you consider we have seven different study periods, electives, core courses that run across multiple programs, course streams, and so on ... you can see that horizontal programming outside the boundaries of a course is problematic.

If we had a more simplistic study year (for example, with no study periods), some really interesting horizontal alignment ideas might become more realistic. For example, it might be possible to move from a course-based approach to a 'theme' approach, to learning which encourages thinking about trans-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary learning.

If you were to consider teaching from a research perspective, a reasonable equivalent of alignment would be;

    • Objective = hypothesis
    • Assessment = evidence
    • Activities = method of data collection

You would then ask, "Is there sufficient evidence for the hypothesis to be validated?"


Where horizontal alignment often goes wrong ...

There are three major areas where horizontal alignment might go wrong.

  • Mismatching the learning objective verb to the intent of the learning objective.  Beware of learning designed specifically to focus on a higher order form of thinking; for example, learning about analysis is not analysis.The higher verb kicks in when the students perform the verb. A competent level of 'analysis' can't be assessed by  retelling, understanding, or at any level that is not at least 'analysis'. The complexity of analysis at P1 might be quite basic but it would still be 'analysis'. You will see this in many rubrics where a P1 is awarded against a criteria that reads something like "the student conveys a basic understanding of the topic". This might really mean something like "the student has analysed the 'x' to a basic level making few links between sections"...
  • Curriculum obesity - this means that there is lots and lots of content not connected to any learning objective.
  • Curriculum delinquency - this means that the curriculum is not aligned very well. A good instance of this is how we often ask students to perform at a much higher cognitive level than the objective states. For example, an objective that says "understand" is not going to be aligned to an assessment which involves writing an essay. Essays argue, they present a case and that requires analysis and evaluation and maybe synthesis.

Adapted from Case, B. & Zucker, S 2008, Policy Report: Horizontal and Vertical Alignment, San Antonio, pp. 1–6.