The aim of the HEFCE learning gain programme is to explore different methods to develop and improve our understanding of learning gain within English higher education.

We commissioned RAND Europe to undertake work looking at current national and international practice related to learning gain, as well as the feasibility of applying the methods identified within an English context.

Measuring methods

On the basis of this research, five broad categories were identified which fed into a call for expressions of interest in March 2015 for piloting and evaluating measures of learning gain.

We started the process of dialogue with the sector through a national conference hosted by HEFCE in February 2015. There was strong consensus on the importance of ‘measuring what matters’ in HE learning and teaching, in addition to recognition of the challenge of ensuring that such measures are carefully chosen and rigorously tested.

As a result of the call for expressions of interest, 13 pilot projects were selected to be funded. These are representative of the sector in terms of institutions, students, and as a range of different approaches.

Unsurprising enough, the majority of the pilots involve using a mixed methods approach, bringing individual progress indicators such as surveys, grades and test results to obtain a proxy measure for learning gain.

The concept of ‘learning’ is rightly extremely dynamic – whether you take a personal, political, philosophical, sociological or psychological view. As such, a multi-aspect approach, rather than any single measure in isolation is likely to be the most appropriate strategy.

No preference

HEFCE has specifically not sought for one approach, tool, nor method to understanding students’ learning gain, nor do we assume the learning gain programme will deliver a single magic metric to fulfil this purpose.

The 13 pilot projects include over 70 universities and colleges, across a range of mission groups and including a number of specialist institutions. Full details of these are now on the HEFCE website. These projects will pilot a range of approaches for the measurement of learning gain. A number of skills and attributes associated with learning will be investigated using these measures including work-readiness, cognitive skills, academic self-efficacy, critical reflection, problem solving, situational judgement skills, research skills and analytical reasoning.

Complementary methods and why

In addition to the pilots we are undertaking a number of complementary activities to further enhance our understanding of potential measures of learning gain. We will look to examine the data we already have available to us to identify potential learning gain indicators. We are exploring the possibility of working with colleagues at the Wabash Center of Inquiry to pilot an established US methodology within a UK context. Although standardised tests to measure learning gain have long been established in the US, there are few examples of their use in the UK; as a result, we will be carrying out work as part of an overall mixed methods project, to identify whether tests like these could be effective in measuring learning gain within an English context.

Yesterday, representatives from the successful pilot projects met for the first time at the first Learning Gain workshop. It was an exciting day, providing the foundations for a community of practice during the coming years.  Participants heard presentations from the Wabash Center of Enquiry, Jisc and the HEA, and debated issues such as student engagement and institutional governance.

Here at HEFCE, we see this activity as helping universities to focus and improve their academic support for students by understanding better the progress they are making. It could also help to improve learning and teaching overall by demonstrating the impact of different approaches with different types of students. For that reason, it’s terrific that such a wide range of HEIs, representing more than half the sector, are already involved, as well as a large consortium of FE Colleges.  We look forward to engaging more widely as the programme develops, and thereby to ensuring that this important issue is addressed through genuine co-development with the HE sector.