Exploring the utility of learning gain internally and across the sector

The most recent definition of learning gain offered is

“a change in knowledge, skills, work readiness and personal development, as well as enhancement of specific practices and outcomes in defined disciplinary and institutional contexts”

(Kandiko Howson 2018: 7)

Sheffield Hallam University in committed to exploring the concept of learning gain across the institution and with external colleagues from the HE sector. Whilst the Office for Students is leading this exploration through a range of pilot projects, SHU is exploring the relevance of current definitions and measures to different types of institutions, diverse students and innovative pedagogies. STEER is central to this body of work and is using knowledge gained from leading on evaluating some national initiatives for learning gain, to ascertain what might make a difference for our own students in terms of distance travelled.

We are also committed to developing more innovative and personalised research methodologies to capture our students’ experiences of learning gain.  SHU work on learning gain has evolved within the following areas:

1) Developing an evidence informed approach

Megan Jones, an experienced student researcher and STEER Senior Lecturer Nathaniel Pickering, have produced an annotated bibliography to outline new literature and research that has emerged since the influential RAND report was published in 2015.  Using some of the key themes from the RAND report, this bibliography organises the literature into: (1) ways of measuring learning gain, (2) limitations to measuring learning gain, (3) benefits to student learning gain and (4) the purpose of measuring learning gain.  This annotated bibliography can be access here

This work provides an up to date commentary and should be read alongside the most recent policy documents and evaluations of practice .

2) Engagement with the HE sector

On the 7th February 2018, colleagues from STEER were invited to present their reflections on ethics and researcher integrity in learning gain research.  They discussed the variety of measurement and the ethical constraints of collecting and storing data, methodological challenges and a desire to see open and honest discussions of unintended research outcomes.  Slides from this presentation, and others from the event can be viewed here.


On the 22nd February 2018, STEER, in partnership with the LEGACY project, hosted a Learning Gain Cross-Institutional Networking Event.  This event was attended by representatives from a De Montfort University, Liverpool Hope University, Newcastle University, Nottingham Trent University, Sheffield Hallam University, Sunderland University, University of Derby, University of Liverpool, University of Sheffield, and Warwick University and explored three questions:

Which areas of learning are perceived to be most relevant?

Which kind of methodologies would you draw on to measure learning gain?

What are the barriers, opportunities and challenges to implementing learning gain in your institution?

It was an engaging event which moved beyond the dominance of quantitative and uniform measurements and reiterated the importance of subject/disciplinary contexts. The summary of discussion can be accessed here.

3) Internal learning gain data collection and evaluation

Sheffield Hallam University has participated in the LEGACY project data collection exercise led by University of Cambridge. Student samples (any level of study) were created within four subject areas: Business Studies, English, Chemistry, and Medicine (Nursing).  Since December 2016, students have completed three iterations of a test to measure learning gain over time.  These results will be analysed at subject level and institutional level and explored comparatively across institutions.  This work aims to understand the development of students’ abilities, skills, and competencies during their time in higher education.  This Strand of LEGACY will contribute empirical and conceptual knowledge to the study of learning gain through robust testing of a bespoke instrument of measurement. Detailed results should be available from the Cambridge project team in the Autumn.  More information of this project can be found here.

Liz Austen from STEER will be overseeing the coordination of the final stages of the LEGACY project alongside the well established project team, Strand leads and Strand partners. The final dissemination event for the LEGACY project is planned for Thursday 27th September 2018. More information can be found on the LEGACY homepage.

Following on from the sector work, Sheffield Hallam are exploring the use of questions taken from the Career Registration Programme (currently being tested nationally as part of the OfS Learning Gain Pilot Projects) which surveys students about their career plans at enrolment.  The utility of a selection of questions will be explored in relation to our own Career Readiness Survey which currently runs annually for new starters.

Images courtesy of LEGACY and Blue Diamond