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Executive summary

1. This report provides an overview of the progress to date of the HEFCE funded learning gain programme and related developments, as requested in the 2017 HEFCE grant letter. The report sets out plans for further developing learning gain methodologies for use in English higher education and by Government.

2. In the context of higher education, learning gain is concerned with the distance travelled by students during their course in terms of increased knowledge, personal growth, acquisition and development of a wide range of skills, and how ready they become for the world of work during the period of their studies. Understanding and measuring such attributes is a complex but important aim. Robust measures have the potential to deliver government objectives in:

  1. Improving quality and driving continuous improvement across the sector, including through improved practice in teaching and learning, and in providing more granular information for students about their attainment over time.
  2. Promoting equality of opportunity and student success, particularly by helping providers understand and address differential learning experiences and outcomes for all students.
  3. Delivering value for money and improving accountability of higher education (HE) to students and the wider public.

3. As a result of two years of HEFCE investment, there is now substantially more interest and activity in relation to learning gain across English HE. We have funded a range of underpinning studies and exploratory research projects including:

  • independent research into the current range and depth of learning gain activity
  • institutionally-led pilot projects and associated evaluation
  • a HEFCE-administered national project and associated evaluation
  • analysis of the potential application of administrative data to understand learning gain in HE.

4. The impact of our work may be summarised under the following headings:

  1. Setting agendas and raising awareness – from being a novel and relatively unexplored concept, learning gain has been established as a concern throughout the learning and teaching community in England and in wider HE debates. For example, recent conferences of the Staff and Educational Development Association and the Society for Research in Higher Education have been dedicated to the topic.
  2. Advancing understanding of learning gain – our primary and secondary research has, for the first time in an English context, revealed and developed concepts of learning gain that are relevant and applicable to institutional practice.
  3. Testing and developing learning gain measures across a diverse range of contexts,with more than 70 institutions participating in HEFCE projects.
  4. Improving understanding of the conditions and factors required to implement learning gain measures effectively, including managing complex areas such as ethics, data sharing and privacy, and student participation.
  5. Making impacts on learning and teaching practices beyond simply measuring learning gain. For example, data gathered on assessment outcomes has stimulated two of the pilot project institutions to explore their overall approaches to assessment practice.

5. Learning gain activities necessarily rely on gathering and analysing data about student cohorts across the full period of their studies, so we are not yet able to provide data on the learning gain demonstrated through the projects. We have already, though, been able to identify some of the challenges and benefits associated with measuring learning gain.

6. Since the HEFCE learning gain programme began in 2015, the Government has introduced the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF). By combining national metrics with institutional evidence, the TEF has further highlighted the importance of high-quality teaching, the student experience and student outcomes. The Government has set out its plans to refine and improve the TEF through testing at subject level, and has introduced a supplementary metrics using the Longitudinal Educational Outcomes survey and data on grade inflation. It is therefore timely to review the progress of our learning gain programme and to take steps to ensure that future activity supports the new policy environment and the broader duties of the Office for Students. The promotion of choice, value for money and equality of opportunity for money for students could all potentially be informed by learning gain data.

7. Building on the research and activity so far, we are establishing during the current academic year a Learning Gain Toolkit, which will provide a basis for learning gain methodologies to be quality assured and used comparatively. A core output from this will be the provision of tested methodologies for institutions to undertake their own learning gain measurements and to demonstrate the outcomes through assessments such as the TEF.

8. To deliver this, we are defining the principles and thresholds for the methodologies and measures to be included: the approaches currently being developed through the HEFCE projects have local value and buy-in but, for wider take-up, institutions will need access to resources and information about the practical use and credibility of methods. The Learning Gain Toolkit will provide these resources, underpinned by sector-led governance and oversight through a panel and peer-review process.

9. In addition, we are initiating work to ensure the interests of students and employers are represented: this will be achieved through the development and implementation of a student engagement plan to ensure the learning gain programme understands and is aligned to their interests, reflecting the focus of the Office for Students. The employer perspective is already embedded in the projects, and will be developed further through the development of the Learning Gain Toolkit.

Date: 21 March 2018

Ref: 2018/03

To: Heads of HEFCE-funded higher education institutions

Of interest to those
responsible for:

Learning and teaching

Enquiries should be directed to:

Aminder K Nijjar, tel 0117 931 7355, email