The HEA’s Strategic Excellence Initiative for Vice-Chancellors or Principals has seen more than 30 senior leaders from across the sector tackle some of the biggest problems facing higher education in the United Kingdom. In this blog Professor Sir Pete Downes, talks about how the project carried out at the University of Dundee is capturing learning gain from student placements, and previews his presentation at the Strategic Excellence Initiative conference on 26th May 2016.
The Higher Education Academy’s Strategic Excellence Initiative was launched last year to ‘focus attention on corporate level responsibilities in learning and teaching; to identify and share innovative practice; and to recognise and promote the strategic leadership of excellence more broadly.’ I was delighted that our proposal to look at ‘Capturing Learning Gain from Student Placements’ was chosen as one of the funded projects.
The Learning Gain project explores student perspectives on their placement experiences, looking specifically at what a work-based learning opportunity offers learners as part of an excellent student experience at the University of Dundee. Our students rate us very highly on student satisfaction - we have been ranked No. 1 in Scotland for six years running by the Times Higher Education (THE) Student Experience Survey (2010 - 2015) – so we know we’re doing something right!
Through the project, however, we have been keen to surface the realities of that student experience by capturing what contributes to successful learning gain. We use the findings to inform ongoing curriculum development, policy and guidelines to support the best possible student placement experience, and in turn to enhance the work-readiness and employability of our graduates.
Adding value to the student learning experience and enabling students to develop their confidence, skills base and, most importantly, to be able to articulate these attributes to potential employers is a central aspiration of this University. We also know that an excellent student experience involves more than what takes place in our lecture theatres, seminar rooms or labs. The online teaching and learning environment, campus facilities and, not forgetting DUSA, rated best Student Union in Scotland in the National Student Survey, 2015, are all integral components of that experience at Dundee.
The benefits to student learning that are provided through activities undertaken outside of the traditional University environment, such as volunteering, have also long been accepted as a highly positive way for students to develop further and practise the skills, attributes and attitudes that are required in an ever more complex world.
The value to students of their ability to engage with authentic, real world learning has also been evident through the significant number of professional programmes at Dundee, with their integral placement opportunities. Increasingly, however, opportunities for engagement in work-based learning that can be provided through the curriculum across a range of subject areas are creating new and exciting ways to support student learning. Four curriculum-based opportunities have been used at Dundee to pilot our approach to capturing learning gain.
The concept of ‘learning gain’ has significant currency in the sector. HEFCE has a number of pilot projects underway examining the idea of learning gain and the UK Government’s Green Paper on teaching excellence (Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (2015) ‘Fulfilling our potential: teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice’ ) includes student outcomes and learning gain as one of the three key aspects that need to be acknowledged in an understanding of ‘the complexity and breadth of teaching quality and excellence’. Our project has used the HEFCE RAND report’s (McGrath,C.H., Guerin, B., Harte, E., Frearson, M. & Manville, C. (2015) ‘Learning gain in higher education’. RAND Europe. ) definition of learning gain as the idea of the ‘distance travelled’ or the difference in skills and personal development demonstrated by students at two points in time. The undergraduate students engaged in these learning opportunities at Dundee have been involved in a range of placements, some allied to their subject area and others which have encouraged individuals to look beyond their subject and to stretch themselves in a different environment.
Using questions based on the HEA’s undergraduate student UK Engagement Survey, the ‘distance travelled’ by the students has been captured using a self-evaluative approach comparing both pre- and post-placement. The project team is currently collaborating with colleagues and students across the institution to develop a range of resources, including a toolkit and a student-produced video on student work placements in the context of learning gain.
Providing every student with the opportunity to engage with a work placement is a very worthy aspiration. Authentic, work-based learning opportunities can be transformational; changing individual student’s thoughts on choice of career, opening doors to potential employment, and highlighting to employers the wide range of talented, enthusiastic and ambitious students in our institutions who will very shortly be graduates in the marketplace.
Transformation is what makes the University of Dundee distinctive; transforming lives in order to make a real impact on the local and international stage through the creation, sharing and application of knowledge. We look forward to sharing with you the outcomes of our project and the resources which we hope will enable you to reflect on learning gain in your own institutions.
Professor Sir Pete Downes
Principal & Vice-Chancellor
University of Dundee
Professor Sir Pete Downes will be presenting alongside other participants in the programme at the Strategic Excellence Initiative conference in London on 26th May. The keynote address will be given by from former Universities Minister Lord Willetts.
To book your place, please visit our events page.