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Leveraging Learning gains: A multi-level longitudinal analysis of 30,000 online learners

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Rebecca Ferguson
17 May 2016

Jekaterina Rogaten, Bart Rienties, Denise Whitelock, Simon Cross and Allison Littlejohn

One of the major challenges that the Higher Education sector is currently facing is that of understanding what counts as an excellent educational outcome. This is effect raises the questions of, how students’ learning can be measured effectively, and how these measurements can be used to inform future developments (McGrath et al., 2015). One way of measuring the ‘value’ of education is by looking at students’ learning gains, which can be defined as a change in knowledge, skills and personal development over time (e.g., Andrews et al., 2011; Boyas et al., 2012). At the Open University UK (OU), using the principles of learning analytics (Ferguson, 2012; Rienties, Boroowa, Cross, Kubiak, Mayles, & Murph 2016), we are currently developing and testing a cognitive learning gain model. The main aim of the research is to examine how students’ cognitive learning gains develop over the years when they study at the OU and whether any particular student or course characteristics can predict cognitive learning gains or lack of learning which can precipitate student dropout.

Data from over 30,000 part-time distance learning undergraduate students was analysed using multilevel modelling in MLwiN. The proxy used for cognitive learning gains was students’ grades obtained from their tutor marked assessments. In a preliminary 4-level model, we used level 1 as ‘topic of study’, level 2 as ‘year of study’, level 3 as ‘student’, and level 4 as tutor marked assessment grades. The results indicated that students’ cognitive learning gains were mainly predicted by previous educational qualifications together with the learning design employed by the module. The main strength of this research is that the approach used is a practical and scalable solution that could be used by teachers, learners, and higher education institutions to improve and personalise their teaching provision which promotes the ‘student first’ agenda.

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