Academics ‘fear they will be judged on learning gain data’

Staff must be reassured that information on students’ progress will be used for pedagogical purposes, conference hears

February 9, 2018
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Attempts to roll out the collection of data on students’ “learning gain” could be hampered by academics’ fears that it will be used to judge their performance, a conference heard.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England is investing £4 million in a drive to measure the change in learners’ knowledge, skills and values over the course of their degree, but Claire Gray, who is leading one of 13 pilot projects, said lecturers were concerned that results could be used to develop metrics for internal assessments or the teaching excellence framework.

“[Academics start to think] about how this data could be used to make judgements on individuals, on cohorts, on programmes and on institutions,” Dr Gray, partnerships development coordinator at Plymouth University, told Hefce’s National Conference on Learning Gain on 7 February.

Many academics hope that learning gain data can be used to drive improvements in pedagogy and to give greater recognition to the progress made by students during their time studying.

But another concern among module leaders was that the data would be used by university management to tell them what their curriculum should be, Dr Gray said.

“Even though we did our utmost to explain what we’ve got permission to use it for…staff were very keen to express the real concern that if this starts to become centrally imposed and is not contextualised to the curriculum and to the teaching and learning that they deliver then it might be subverted in some way,” she said.

Assuring staff and students that there was no hidden agenda was “absolutely critical for making learning gain happen and making it have some impact”, Dr Gray said.

“We are doing this very clearly because we want to use it to inform the interventions which will support improvements in teaching and learning,” she explained. “That was the very simple take we had on it, and we thought we were being very clear, very explicit and very open about this.”

However, not all the staff interviewed as part of the evaluation of the Plymouth-led pilot had concerns.

“The positive [responses from staff] were all about the benefits they saw when they started to work with the students in using this tool, and when they started to talk about and identify the ways it could be used as part of an intervention,” said Dr Gray.

Students themselves gave positive feedback, with one commenting that it gave them the confidence to go on to postgraduate studies, and another saying that it gave students an opportunity to reflect.

The conference also heard about the challenges of getting students to engage in learning gain activity when it did not contribute to their final degree classification. Some universities have used incentives such as Amazon and drinks vouchers.

Hefce’s pilots include projects that test students, ask them to complete surveys, or compare data on their grades. A nationally administered standardised test is also being trialled.

Yvonne Hawkins, Hefce’s director of universities and colleges, told the event that the funding council would draw on the pilots to create a learning gain “toolkit” for universities to use, which would be released next year.

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