England’s £4 million learning gain investment ‘could go to waste’

Call for other sector agencies to take on research from regulator

August 5, 2019
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England’s investment of more than £4 million in studying learning gain could be wasted after much-heralded research projects drew to a close without a clear way forward.

The now-defunct Higher Education Funding Council for England launched 13 pilot projects at more than 70 institutions in 2015, with the aim of finding ways to measure the improvement in students’ skills and competencies over the course of their university study.

At the time, it was hoped that the trials – which also included a bid to experiment with national standardised tests – could point to a way of comparing institutional performance that could be incorporated as a new metric into an assessment such as the teaching excellence framework.

However, England’s new higher education regulator, the Office for Students, quietly published the evaluations of the learning gain work last month and said that “no further research” was planned.

The research concludes that there was “no silver bullet” that would enable a regulator to “accurately and effectively measure student learning comparatively across subjects of study and institutional types, despite appetite from government ministries and the media”.

The Hefce-commissioned pilots examined nearly 30 approaches to measuring learning gain, exploring areas including cognitive development, “soft skills” and employability.

The standardised testing initiative – the National Mixed Methodology Learning Gain project – was scrapped last year after not enough students could be persuaded to participate.

Camille Kandiko Howson, associate professor of education at Imperial College London and author of the main evaluation report, said the pilots had shown the limitations of measuring learning gain.

“It would be appropriate to measure within small subject groups or, possibly, across specific institutional types, but not broad metrics that would be relevant for all students, all subjects across all institutions,” Dr Kandiko Howson said.

However, because the OfS regulates the sector through the lens of the institution, “there is a mismatch when it comes to measuring learning gain and the way the OfS wants to use data”, she continued.

“A lot of this is shift from Hefce as a funding council to OfS as a regulator…Hefce’s remit included looking into teaching and learning enhancement and providing data to help institutions improve,” she said. “In terms of taking the work forward, the OfS put this activity in its structure under teaching and learning, and they have no budget for this.”

Dr Kandiko Howson pleaded for this not to be the end of major learning gain research in the UK. “Perhaps a body like Universities UK, a learned society or even Advance HE could pick it up,” she said.

Carol Evans, professor of higher education at the University of Southampton, agreed.

While acknowledging that there had been problems around the lack of planning before the launch of the pilots and with the widespread use of surveys, the primary flaw was in chasing national comparability, she explained, saying it was “fool’s gold, it won’t help us”.

“However, if you look at the micro level, there are many possibilities. Learning gain is nuanced by the context – you have to look at the students,” Professor Evans continued. “Learning gain has massive potential if we use it for the process, not the outcomes.”

In particular, learning gain data could be used to help a lecturer enhance their teaching, Professor Evans said. “If the government is serious about investing in enhancing teaching and learning, this is really valuable, but where will the funding come from?” she asked.

An OfS spokesman said the regulator was “currently taking stock of the findings from the evaluations of each strand of the learning gain programme. Currently, no further research into learning gain is planned.”


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Reader's comments (4)

What this actually means is that the OfS are not intersted in learning or where the students come from. This is not very surprising given the market-domninated ideology within which they operate. It simply reaffirms their perception of students as consumers and their complete disinterest in meaningful improvement. Higher Education in the UK is fast becoming a synonym for student farming and this is simply symptomatic of the complete failure of leadership. Universities UK will express some token concerns and quietly let this die, most members of the Russel group will be overjoyed and once again the learners will lose out.
This highlights the fact that the OfS is pretty worthless as far as universities are concerned, and probably not much use for those students who actually want to benefit from their studies... if they are not interested in learning and teaching, one wonders just what they ARE interested in as regards higher education (the clue is in the name!). Perhaps the Higher Education Academy should step in here!
Doesn't the phrase 'not enough students could be persuaded to participate.' say enough?
The comment "Start with the end in mind" seems to be missing in this attempt to identify a mythical "learning gain" by students. In the absence of there being a clearly defined "lump of learning" that has to be weighed and measured at the end of the process, the activity was doomed to failure from the start. The sheer variety of university subjects, institutions, students and teachers makes the idea of measuring learning gain by some magical, one size fits all "End Point Assessment" futile. You can take a student to learning but you can't always make them think. Given a good diversity of teachers we might hope to instill students with a general type of critical thinking that might enable them to understand the difference between truth and falsehood. Perhaps finding a way to measure this competence could be one way forward.