On learning “gains”

I have heard the term learning gain on and off but considered that it was just an awkward phrase to describe learning, a pleonasm that indicated some generally positive direction for those needing reassurance. And I am sure I have read about the concept of learning gain in the past but never took too much notice, likely too busy checking Twitter to focus on the subject at hand. But it was through Twitter this week that I was released from my gains-free bubble, and enough neurons aligned for me to grasp that learning gains is actually A Thing.

And what a horrendous Thing it is. HEFCE have a website dedicated to it and define it as “an attempt to measure the improvement in knowledge, skills, work-readiness and personal development made by students during their time spent in higher education”. If that isn’t clear, then how about this: a 125 page document published by RAND for HEFCE define learning gain (LG) as

LG = B – A’

They put it like this too – an equation on a separate line so that the scientists can nod along but the humanities people can just skip to the next piece of text. Good scientists should note that the variables should be italicised. Neither route offers any solace. This seemingly placid text masks one of the most remarkably awful ideas – gosh darn it THE most remarkable fuckwittery – I have come across in a long time.

Devoid of being able to monitor very much about teaching and learning in higher education, some genius has dreamt up this clanger. Rather than wondering why it is difficult (impossible) to achieve this task, the approach instead is to quantify with a number how much individual students have learned each year. A student will be measured at the start of the year, and again at the end of the year, and the difference is… well it’s obvious from the formula – there’ll be gainz. Each student’s own gain will be individual, so these poor lab rats exposed to this drudge are going to have to sit in an interview in a few years’ time and explain to someone what this garbage is about. Not only that, but this insidious beast is going to creep into every aspect of students’ learning. Degree transcripts will list a learning gain of 3.4 in career awareness and 2.9 in self-sufficiency. You were on a student society? Add 0.5 to your learning gain. Is this who we are now? How many centuries have universities existed, and now, at our supposed pinnacle, we have been reduced to this tripe. Don’t trust experts, Michael Gove said. Lots of very clever people are involved in this, and while I hope their intentions are good, I don’t trust the motives behind it. Writing an introduction to a special issue of HERD on measurement in universities, the editors cited Blaise:

A measurement culture takes root as if it is education because we are no longer sufficiently engaged with what a good education is. (HT)

HEFCE have funded several universities to wheel out creaking wooden horses, under the guise of pilot studies. It’s a cruel move, throwing some breadcrumbs at an education sector starved of research money to do anything. A horrible irony, it is, that in the name of ensuring value for money for taxpayers, that money is being spent on this. Don’t those involved see the next act in this tragedy? Institutional comparisons of average learning gains, far removed from the individual it was supposed to be personalised to, are easily computed. And numbers, whether they have meaning or not, are very powerful.

So when your student is sitting with you at the end of the year, and you have to measure their career awareness improvement, and your institution is under pressure as its gains are not as good as their protein-fuelled competitor, most likely a private operator in the dystopian near future the Tories are setting up, you might think again about their ability to discuss career pathways. Worse still is the difficulty in measuring a subject gain, or the even greater idiocy of using a proxy to measure something that can’t be meaningfully expressed as a number in the first place.

Another problem with measuring anything half as complicated as this, as a century of predictive studies has found, is that it is very easy to measure the large changes and the little changes, but the mass of students in the middle is mostly a muddle. And with LG = B – A’, there will be lots of muddle in the middle. What about the very bright student who actually knew most of the content at the start of the year because of prior schooling, but was shy and wanted to settle in for the first year of university. What about the one who enjoys just getting by and will focus in Year 3, but in the meantime has to be subject to self-efficacy tests to demonstrate improvement. What about the geniuses? What about first time in families? What about the notion that university is more than a number and the very darn fact that these are not things that we should try to measure.

I want my students to graduate mature and happy and adult and functioning members of society. If they learn some thermodynamics along the way, then that’s great. I can measure one of these things. It will be a sorry state of affairs if we have to measure others, and our future graduates, burdened with this heap of gunge won’t thank us for it.

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