8.1 In Chapters 5 and 6 we set out our views about the need for increased and wider participation in higher education. We expect greater numbers of students to come from a broader spectrum of cultural backgrounds and abilities. Many of them will be mature students, increasingly aware of the knowledge and skills that are valued in employment. Given this increasing diversity in students, and the progressive development of communications and information technology, the next 20 years will be a period of major change in the practice of learning and teaching in higher education.

8.2 Teachers will have to respond to a changing – and more discerning and demanding – student population. They are more likely to have to work increasingly in partnership – or in competition – with publishers, film-makers and broadcasters as the growth of information technology opens up new ways of learning and teaching. They will be increasingly involved in learning partnerships with major employers. They will need to deliver a learning experience in higher education which enthuses students to become lifelong learners. They will need to encourage all students to aspire to a deep understanding and experience of their area of study at whatever level they are studying.

8.3 The consensus among many educators is that depth of understanding is fostered by an active approach to learning, and by forging the links between theoretical and practical aspects of the subject. For this to be possible, students must have access to more than just the articulation of knowledge in the form of books and lectures. They also need practical experience that rehearses them in the professional or scholarly skills of their field, and the opportunity to develop and express their own understanding and point of view in an environment that gives constructive feedback.

‘great teachers create a common ground of intellectual commitment. They stimulate active, not passive, learning and encourage students to be critical, creative thinkers, with the capacity to go on learning after their college days are over.’1

8.4 Such a vision puts students at the centre of the learning and teaching process and places new challenges and demands upon teachers. As our terms of reference say: ‘the effectiveness of teaching and learning should be enhanced.’ It also places a premium on wider support and guidance for students which enables them to focus their attention fully on their learning. We believe that achievement of our vision will establish the United Kingdom (UK) as a leader in the world of learning and teaching at higher levels. In our view, this must be a national objective.

8.5 In this chapter we develop our ideas on how such a vision can be realised by considering:

  • what is distinctive about learning and teaching at the higher education level;
  • the challenges for learning and teaching;
  • the impact of communications and information technology (C&IT) on learning and teaching;
  • how best to support the student learning experience;
  • staff development and training for improved learning and teaching.

Distinctive features of learning and teaching in higher education

8.6 At a seminar with prominent researchers specialising in learning in higher education, we sought to identify what is distinctive about learning at the higher level. We heard that it can be defined as the development of understanding and the ability to apply knowledge in a range of situations. This requires information and the opportunity to engage in ‘learning conversations’ with staff and other students in order to understand and be able to use new concepts in a particular field. A successful student will be able to engage in an effective discussion or debate with others in that field, relying on a common understanding of terms, assumptions, questions, modes of argument, and the body of evidence. Learning also involves acquiring skills, such as analysis and communication, but these in isolation do not constitute learning.

8.7 We have sought to evaluate the often argued need to link teaching with research and scholarship in higher education. Our visits to institutions, in the UK and overseas, have persuaded us of the important role of research and scholarship in informing and enhancing teaching, which we expand upon in Chapter 11. Although research is carried out at different levels and different intensities by different institutions, higher education is characterised by the interest and enthusiasm of staff for pursuing their subject in directions of their choosing. For some staff this may involve studying the corpus of knowledge in a subject or field to gain a broad understanding of the outcomes of research, to analyse and synthesise these outcomes to produce a coherent picture, and from this to identify trends and connections, to draw conclusions and to point out further directions for research. We believe that this form of scholarly investigation, together with research, is a distinctive feature of higher education: they enliven staff, they ensure that teaching and curriculum development is up-to-date, and, more generally, they invigorate higher level learning in our universities and colleges.

Challenges for learning and teaching

8.8 The challenge of the next 20 years is to maintain the distinctiveness of learning at the higher level and to enhance teaching and improve students’ learning. Virtually all higher education institutions have mission statements which emphasise the importance of learning and teaching.2 Many have developed strategies and established committees or units devoted to the development of these activities. In pursuit of a national strategy of excellence, we are convinced that the enhancement and promotion of learning and teaching must be a priority for all of higher education.

8.9 One current barrier is that staff perceive national and institutional policies as actively encouraging and recognising excellence in research, but not in teaching. Although the teaching quality assessments (TQA) carried out by the Funding Bodies, which are designed to measure the effectiveness of teaching, have raised the profile of teaching within institutions, the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) has been a stronger influence and has deflected attention away from learning and teaching towards research. An analysis of the impact of the 1992 RAE in higher education institutions in England suggests that it has devalued teaching because research assessment is closely linked to the allocation of large sums of money, whereas teaching assessment is not.3 The fact that almost every higher education institution in the country entered the exercise – regardless of whether its primary mission was to research or to teach – indicates the influence of the RAE on institutions’ activities. In Chapter 11, we develop proposals to redress the imbalance between teaching and research, and to recognise that a distinctive feature of higher education is the link between research, scholarship and teaching.

8.10 Changes to national policy are only part of the answer to a better balance. Our national consultation suggested that, if the quality of students’ educational experience is to be maintained or improved, innovative teaching strategies which promote students’ learning – many of which are already in place – will have to become widespread. This means that higher education institutions will need to continue to emphasise the centrality of learning and teaching in all their work.

Recommendation 8
We recommend that, with immediate effect, all institutions of higher education give high priority to developing and implementing learning and teaching strategies which focus on the promotion of students’ learning.

8.11 We recognise the scale of the challenge to institutions in our prescription of national excellence in teaching and the management of learning. The rise in student numbers over the last decade, and the continuing pressure on institutional finances resulting in lower staff to student ratios, has meant larger class sizes and less contact time for students. We note some research that has indicated that students perform worse in large classes, and markedly so in some subject areas, particularly the social sciences.4 We are aware of how many students, out of necessity, have to seek part-time work during term time, and the effect this may have on their performance.

8.12 The pattern of learning has been changing, with an increasing proportion of time spent outside the classroom in independent study. Administrative and support staff have noticed a change in the delivery of higher education, with a greater emphasis on independent learning. Library staff have told us that they have to spend more time supporting students, and that many students come from school ill-prepared for this form of learning.5

8.13 Given the increased time students spend in independent study, the task of planning the time they spend learning becomes ever more important. To manage the learning process for more diverse and greater numbers of students, teachers will have to consider the trade-off between the quantity and the quality of time spent with students. Planning for learning means that designing the forms of instruction which support learning becomes as important as preparing the content of programmes.

8.14 Despite the changes in the learning environment, teaching methods do not appear to have changed considerably. Our survey and other research suggest that lectures are still the most common form of teaching in higher education.6 Initial findings from research suggest that many staff still see teaching primarily in terms of transmission of information, mainly through lectures.7 There are many teachers who are ready to adopt different methods of teaching as circumstances change, but others find change hard to accept and do not reflect much on their teaching or consider the basis of good teaching practice. This does not mean that staff are not interested in teaching, but it reflects the lack of incentive to develop teaching knowledge and skills, and the limited opportunities for staff development within departments.

8.15 It is not for us to offer institutions a compendium of learning strategies to enable them to achieve excellence in a world in which it is unrealistic to expect a return to former staff to student ratios. But it seems plain that an effective strategy will involve guiding and enabling students to be effective learners, to understand their own learning styles, and to manage their own learning. We see this as not only directly relevant to enhancing the quality of their learning while in higher education, but also to equipping them to be effective lifelong learners. Staff will increasingly be engaged in the management of students’ learning, using a range of appropriate strategies.

8.16 The evidence we have had from employers shows that they value the contribution work experience makes to the development of a range of personal skills and students’ understanding of the world of work, which we consider in more detail in Chapter 9. The educational value of such work is enhanced if the student is encouraged and helped by the institution to reflect on the work experience, to make linkages with theory learned in other settings and, thereby, to learn from it. We are, however, concerned at the number of students who, out of necessity, undertake excessive amounts of paid work during term time to the detriment of their studies. At present, the relatively short timescale for study in most UK institutions is justified by the high quality of the learning experience and its outcomes. This could be undermined if students are not able to spend sufficient time studying and are unable to learn from the work experience because of the extent of employment commitments.

8.17 Feedback and assessment are important in helping students to progress and learn from their mistakes. Fewer than half the students responding to our survey were satisfied with the feedback they got from staff about their work. Planning for learning will require teachers to consider carefully how best to provide useful feedback to assist students’ ability to think about their work and develop their understanding of the area of study.

8.18 As part of their strategies for learning and teaching, we suggest that all institutions encourage staff to plan for the learning time of students. At a practical level, this could involve:

  • making ‘planning for learning’ an explicit responsibility of heads of department;
  • redirecting attention to learning by changing staff contracts (where they exist) to refer to the time spent in support of student learning in its variety of forms rather than simple class contact time;
  • considering how students can become active participants in the learning process;
  • creating structured opportunities for teachers to examine and evaluate teaching methods;
  • considering how communications and information technology (C&IT) can provide support for learning.

8.19 We find it surprising that there has been little strategic research to monitor the consequences of recent changes in the students’ learning environment and institutions’ teaching activities. Although there is a substantial body of research about student learning, there has been little follow-up work into how some accepted principles might be translated into new teaching practices across disciplines and professional areas. We make a key recommendation on this point later in the chapter (Recommendation 14).

The impact of Communications and Information Technology on learning and teaching

8.20 We estimate in Chapter 13 that up to ten per cent of expenditure in higher education is committed to C&IT. Our concern here is with its potential contribution to learning and teaching. Technological development provides the potential for enhancing the quality of learning for students in an era of attenuated staff to student ratios.

8.21 It is clear to us, however, that personal contact between teacher and student, and between student and student, gives a vitality, originality and excitement that cannot be provided by machine-based learning, however excellent. When free to make a choice, even though it costs more, individuals are likely to choose to receive information and experience in the company of others, rather than alone, and to receive it from a person who is there to respond, even as part of a group. But, through C&IT, it is possible to offer forms of contact and access to some highly effective learning materials that were previously unavailable for many students.

Rest of chapter