“Learning gain”, the difference that university makes to students’ cognitive abilities, is a growing preoccupation of policymakers and educationalists who fear that higher education does little or nothing to boost young people’s general skills.
Now, a San Francisco-based for-profit institution is using this measure to challenge established universities, presenting test results that it says show that its teaching methods are far superior to those of incumbents.
Minerva has about 450 students who learn through online interactive seminars, devoted at least in the first year to developing critical thinking skills rather than building knowledge of subject basics.
Students are supposed to learn introductory subject material themselves, using free online resources. They live together in residential halls in San Francisco, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Seoul and Hyderabad, but faculty can teach online from anywhere in the world.
Ben Nelson, Minerva’s founder and chief executive, told Times Higher Education that established universities had been unwilling to engage with measures of learning gain because they painted traditional providers in a poor light. “It punctures the myth they perpetuate about themselves,” he said.
Minerva’s second-year cohort of students took the CLA+ test, a measure of problem-solving, scientific and quantitative reasoning, writing effectiveness, critical reading and argument critique.
They were tested at the beginning of the course and then again eight months later, by which point their average score “was higher than the scores of senior graduating classes at every other university and college that administered the test”, according to the company.
Minerva students improved their scores significantly as well, the company said, jumping from the 78th percentile to the 99th percentile compared with final-year students at other institutions.
This rate of improvement “will certainly not be maintained” after the first year, Mr Nelson acknowledged, because teaching initially focuses on thinking skills rather than any content.
Nevertheless, the results show “the difference between hoping that our institutions are teaching students, and actually organising the programme to do that”, Mr Nelson told delegates at the Online Educa Berlin conference.
A wide range of US universities use the CLA+ test, which was used as the basis for the controversial 2010 book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. The authors of that book found that about a third of students demonstrated no significant improvement in their skills over four years, kick-starting debate over learning gain at university.
But one issue is whether employers actually do hire graduates who possess such skills – or simply rely on alumni of a tiny pool of “elite” universities. Challenged on this point at the conference, Mr Nelson insisted that “where you went to university is almost irrelevant” in the labour market.
In the UK, the Higher Education Funding Council for England is experimenting with standardised tests for students to gauge learning gain. And earlier this month, University of Cambridge researchers said that they had come up with another test, lasting just 20 minutes, to track changes in students’ knowledge, skills and values.