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The role of Active Learning in Higher Education

Posted on: 27/02/2018 | Written by: Andrew Robinson, Director of Higher Education

With so many prominent questions around in HE right now, we speak to Andrew Robinson, Director of Higher Education, to share his views – reflecting the UK landscape.

What role is active learning now playing in HE?

We’re moving more towards a time where, while knowledge acquisition is still really important, skills development and critical thinking (so that information can be used and converted into a knowledgeable skill) is of equal weight. There is an increasing expectation in higher education that more teaching is delivered in an active format, rather than a passive one. One of the big challenges through tertiary education, is that it’s been delivered in a more static way for 100 years, so it’s quite a shift! – Especially when you consider that both primary and secondary level teaching are now delivered in an active format. Students have an expectation when they reach university level.

We ran a webinar on Active Learning recently and 100% of lecturers asked, agreed that teaching in this way increased student satisfaction – something we know can also be directly linked to drop out rates on courses. Some of the tools we’re developing, like MindTap, have more interactive content included to allow students to ‘take part’ more, but also to take out some of the challenge for the lecturer if this is a new style of teaching.

How can universities stem drop-out rates?

Essentially, by anticipating the problem before it’s too late. And using tools available to them to monitor performance closely. Universities have exposure to a variety of statistics/analytics from their learning management systems which can be used to monitor student performance. But also implementing additional digital products into courses that have analytics, can be a really useful way of measuring student engagement – against their peers or against their previous semesters performance. Lecturers are able to act upon any dramatic changes and potentially stop any further decline in engagement or participation. In a recent webinar we ran on Student Engagement, 54% of lecturers asked said that engagement was the main reason they had adopted a digital solution for their course.

Are fewer poor students going to university in the UK?

Most institutions take some social indicators into account when admitting students and don’t experience either increased drop-out rates or a drop in grades as a result. In recent research, conducted for the Sutton Trust, students considered to be the poorest are now actually more likely to attend university. The Trusts current statistic is ‘11.3% of students are from the poorest areas’, the previous number was 9.6%.

We as a provider of learning solutions are also taking this into consideration when developing our digital products, by working on tools that are of universal benefit for all students, regardless of background. Tools like SAM (for IT skills) and Pathbrite (our online portfolio tool) and also the MindTap products which have analytic capabilities. These give indicators of individuals performance against peers, so if a student is being left behind they can investigate and offer the required academic support or pastoral care.

Does it matter what subjects students study at University?

In terms of career success, there’s been recent research that suggests students of more academic subjects will do better in the world of work vs the more vocational courses. But the expectation now is that students come out of university with both an academic qualification and the developed critical thinking skills that are going to be helpful in their ongoing working lives. They’re not necessarily specific to a vocation, they can be about emotional intelligence or conducting meetings, being able to interpret data and making sense of information. Lots of the tools we have are designed to support both the academic and vocational courses in order to aid students to succeed regardless of the course they take.

How can universities improve their ratings in the Teaching Excellence Framework?

So institutions know that the results of the NSS have a direct impact on their rating, as well as other measures. Student satisfaction is a massive part of the NSS, so one way for universities to make sure they’re scoring well in this element is to keep their students engaged through supportive teaching and the content of the course itself. There is a piece of research from the Higher Education Policy Institute that has also come up with a checklist that institutions can use when working on their statements for the next TEF.

Opinions and outlooks raised belong to the author and don’t necessarily reflect any part of Cengage or our affiliates.