Deconstructing Learning Gain

For a workshop at a recent SEDA conference, Peter Gossman, Charles Neame and myself ran a workshop exploring the concept of Learning Gain, a concept that is currently being promoted by Hefce with the aim of ‘developing and testing new ways of capturing educational outcomes and analysing how students benefit from higher education.’.  In a UK context, this is closely bound into the new Teaching Excellence Framework that will rank UK Universities on measures of the Student Experience – the Teaching part being something of a misnomer.

Our starting point for the workshop was that before we get to thinking about measures of Learning Gain (as being explored by the Hefce projects), we first need to understand something of the purpose or mission of an institution – a cursory consideration reveals that they will be very different for different institutions.

For the purpose of stimulating conversation, we invited participants to reflect on their own institutions using the thinking of Gert Biesta and his writing around the purpose of education (Good Education In An Age of Measurement: On The Need To Reconnect With The Question Of Purpose In Education – 2009) and the three functions he identifies as:

  • qualification “It lies in providing them with the knowledge, skills and understanding and often also with the dispositions and forms of judgement that allow them to „do something‟ – a “doing‟ which can range  from the very specific (such as in the case of training for a particular job or profession, or training for a particular skill or technique)”
  • socialisation “the many ways in which, through education, we become members of and part of particular social, cultural and political “orders‟…Through its socialising function education inserts individuals into existing ways of doing and being
  • subjectification “might perhaps best be understood as the opposite of the socialization function. It is precisely not about the insertion of “newcomers‟ into existing orders, but about ways of being that hint at independence from such orders”

To help participants think about these ideas we provided them with the triangular graph (Geographers will recognise it as soil texture triangle).  The approach allows for a plot of three variables adding up to 100% (sand silt & clay for soils), in our case the three purposes proposed by Biesta. Colleagues plotted their own institution and engaged in dialogue around the positioning and what kind of measure might best be used to capture learning gain.

As a tool for structuring discussions we think it worked well as it forced choices to be made that traded off one purpose against another – less ‘fence sitting’.

For me, one of the most interesting ideas to emerge is how I can use the technique to stimulate dialogue and reflection for academics about their teaching.  For example, where would we position ourselves as a teacher using the three constructs of student centred, teacher centred and discipline knowledge?

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