Are we academically adrift?
Are students in UK universities actually learning anything? This week, HEFCE is expected to launch the largest research project yet in the UK investigating that question, finally providing an evidence base for the long-running debate about learning gain.
Interest in learning gain has been increasing in recent years, particularly in the US after ‘Academically Adrift’ was published in 2011, analysing the Collegiate Learning Assessment test. The study made waves when it argued that a third of US university students learn next to nothing in four years. Other studies, such as the Wabash National Study of learning in liberal arts colleges, have added to a growing anxiety that many universities are simply ineffective at educating their students.
Even before Jo Johnson’s announcement of the TEF in June last year, the anxiety about limited learning spread to the UK, although there is currently no compelling evidence to back up the fears. In 2010, in the influential and widely cited ‘Dimensions of Quality’, Graham Gibbs argued that there is “sufficient evidence” to be concerned in the UK about the process indicators that predict educational gain. David Willetts promoted the issue in numerous speeches and policy initiatives and HEFCE began work on learning gain in late 2014, hosting an event with several US speakers in February 2015, and subsequently announcing £4 million of funding in the area.
Last September, HEFCE commissioned a report by RAND Europe, which evaluated different methods for measuring learning gain and what utility they might have for the sector. The report recommended robust piloting of the validity and feasibility of different approaches to measuring learning gain in a British context. After initially mooting the idea in the Green Paper, the government confirmed in the recent TEF technical paper that learning gain measures could become a part of the exercise in future years.
The mixed method project due to be announced this week will involve about 27,000 undergraduate students at about ten institutions. Students will be tested at various points throughout their undergraduate careers using three different measures: a problem solving and critical thinking test; a survey on attitudes and non-cognitive skills; and a survey of students’ engagement with their studies.
This will obviously take several years to be completed, but it is clear that interest in learning gain (perhaps coupled with a little bit of anxiety) is growing and will be an ongoing theme of policy discussions, particularly as the TEF is refined and developed. There will be significant challenges in systematically measuring learning gain across the sector without introducing standardised instruments similar to the US Collegiate Learning Assessment, something that universities are unlikely to support.
Nonetheless, the political implications of learning gain are too large for it to be avoided. The TEF has evolved out of a deep suspicion that UK universities are indeed ‘academically adrift’, and however clumsy, is an attempt to correct course. It is hoped that the more precise our understanding of effective (or ineffective) learning in universities, the less damaging future government attempts to hold universities accountable for teaching quality will be. You can read more about HEFCE’s existing learning gain work here.
Also this week, HEFCE will be releasing guidance for institutions for the upcoming TEF. After last week’s release by HEFCE of details about the new Annual Provider Review (APR) process, institutions will no doubt be asking exactly how HEFCE will organise the overlaps, as data submitted for both the TEF and APR appear increasingly similar.