Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Did They Bulk Up in Mental Muscle?

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Did They Bulk Up in Mental Muscle?

Article excerpt

Could moves to quantify students' 'learning gain' spread from the US to the UK? Jack Grove reports

Four years ago, the book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses sent a shudder through the US academy.

According to its findings, nearly half of undergraduates showed no substantial improvement in critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills in their first two years of study and were only slightly better on graduation.

The dismal results presented by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roska caused a sensation, highlighting an apparent neglect of students ill-served by America's costly higher education system.

That moral challenge to justify the fees charged to undergraduates now appears to have reached the UK, with policymakers taking an interest in the idea of "learning gain" at university.

As part of a wide-ranging review of performance measures in use, the Higher Education Funding Council for England is considering whether indicators of learning gain - also known as "value-added" - could conceivably be collected from universities.

It has commissioned Rand Europe to carry out a study on the mechanisms available to track the "distance travelled" by students, with the education consultants due to deliver their report this spring.

Of course, many educators will wonder why the higher education sector's main tool of assessment - the degree classification system - is not seen as a sufficient indicator of an individual's progress, particularly if considered alongside that student's A-level scores.

Several university rankings already do this to judge teaching quality, awarding "value-added" points for institutions that manage to help students with low Ucas tariff scores to achieve at least a 2:1.

But if a student with grades of BCC at A level later gains first-class honours, is that always a sign of great teaching or can it indicate "dumbing down"? Does awarding a third to a straight-A student have to reflect badly on a university's teaching? Or might it suggest that the institution has more rigorous standards?

Degree inflation a spur to action

Many in the sector say that a new set of measures are indeed required to show learning gain because rampant degree inflation has eliminated any possibility of the comparability of standards between institutions.

Standardised tests can show how much students have developed their key study skills, argued Roger Benjamin, president of the Council for Aid to Education, which provides Collegiate Learning Assessment tests to more than 200 higher education institutions in the US.

"If you do not have some way to compare yourself against another institution, how do you know if you're doing well?" Dr Benjamin asked.

Speaking at a Hefce conference on learning gain at the Royal Society on 9 February, he added that "professors do not have a clear incentive" to prove that what they are doing in the classroom has been effective.

In the absence of a trusted comparative measure across the sector, employers are simply choosing graduates from elite universities that have their own tough admissions procedures, he said.

"Too many students that go to less selective institutions never get an interview for a job," said Dr Benjamin, claiming that "badges" to indicate significant learning gain could help to unearth "hidden gems" from less prestigious universities.

He admitted, however, that academics are distrustful of standardised tests, in which students are asked to read a range of materials and write an essay on a real-life scenario, usually on a business-related subject, showing their reasoning. …

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