Learning Gain: ADD Masterclass write-up

On Tuesday 28th March the Academic Development Directorate ran a Masterclass presented by Corony Edwards, a staff development and higher education consultant, on learning gain in higher education.

Learning gain is described by Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE) on their learning gain website as, “an attempt to measure the improvement in knowledge, skills, work-readiness and personal development made by students during their time spent in higher education”. The RAND report refers to learning gain as “the ‘distance travelled’, or the difference between the skills, competencies, content knowledge and personal development demonstrated by students at two points in time” (McGrath et al, 2015, p. ix).

In the masterclass Corony discussed some of the ongoing debates and research around learning gain, including the RAND report some of the pilot projects in HEFCE’s learning gain project. Corony highlighted four drivers for measuring learning gain:

  1. The need to demonstrate impact
  2. Transparency for students
  3. Evidence-based teaching quality enhancement
  4. The Teaching Excellence Framework

The RAND report was based on a study commissioned by HEFCE (in partnership with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Higher Education Academy) to look at national and international practice related to measures of learning gain. The research draws upon a national and international literature review, a call for information to institutions, and interviews with selected institutions and professional accrediting bodies. The report identified five main groups of measure:

  • Standardised tests
  • Grades
  • Self-reporting surveys
  • Other qualitative methods
  • Mixed methods

Corony went on to discuss some of the challenges of developing learning gain highlighted in the report such as; having a clearly stated purpose, identifying the dimensions of analysis (whether it’s personal development, generic skills, etc.), the validity and comparability and representativeness (e.g. sample size).

The HEFCE funded pilot projects were also covered, there were thirteen collaborative institutional projects to test and evaluate different ways of measuring learning gain. Over 70 universities and colleges, reflecting student and sector diversity, are involved. The projects combine two different approaches: cross-sectional (comparing students in different cohorts at the same time) and longitudinal (analysing progress over time). Corony identified a few of these projects to share with us at the masterclass, a couple of self report student surveys and a new instrument study. HEFCE are also running a national mixed methods project, which launched in 2016. A ‘discipline blind’ generic approach, run across 10 institutions, with around 27,000 participating students (potentially, but the response rate so far is low @ 5% in December). The study includes three measures:

  • Standardised test of critical thinking and problem solving ability (Cambridge Assessment)
  • Self report survey on attitudes to learning
  • Selection of items from the UK Student Engagement Survey (HEA)

Learning gain and it’s measurement in HE is set to be a developing area in the foreseeable future, one for which there is no consensus yet on what aspects of learning should be measured or how they will be measured.

Further Reading and Resources

Future Masterclasses and other ADD Events will be advertised in the all staff email and on the ADD Webpages.



About Emma Fletcher

Working to the Directorate’s annual objectives and the TEL Quality Framework, Emma’s role as a TEL Advisor is to proactively support and develop staff in using technology to enhance the student learning experience. Her main focus is to advise academic staff on effective use of learning technologies to develop innovative learning resources, processes and practices. Before joining YSJ Emma was a teacher of computing at Castleford Academy. Emma is interested in mobile learning / BYOD and open education.

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