Keynote 3: Improving Student Learning: where should we direct our effort?

  • Keynote: Improving Student Learning: where should we direct our effort?

    Professor Graham Gibbs

    When the Improving Student Learning Symposium was founded, twenty years ago, it was intended as a vehicle for those using research evidence about student learning to change their practices and for those who evaluate the impact of such changes using research tools. It was designed as a place where those who built the theories and created the empirical underpinnings, and devised the research tools, could meet those who used these theories and tools to change things and measure impact of the changes. Much early work was based on phenomenographic research and had the intention of increasing the extent to which students took a deep approach to learning. At the 10th Anniversary ISL Symposium in Brussels I reviewed 374 papers that had been published in ISL proceedings over the previous decade (Gibbs, 2003). Few of these papers, only 12%, presented any evidence of student learning processes having been improved, a vanishingly small percentage reported improvements in learning performance, and none reported learning gains. One Symposium, on Improving Student Learning through Technology, reported not a single instance of improved learning process or outcome. There are a number of possible explanations of this. For example ISL might no longer be used as a vehicle for discussing improvement, but only learning, and research into learning. After all this is an engaging topic to meet and talk about. Another possibility is that the empirical basis of the ISL movement was not robust enough to provide clear pointers to where we should direct our effort if we wanted to improve student learning, or at least that the empirical basis, even if robust enough, still did not provide clear pointers. Since then I have undertaken reviews of a much wider range of literature, in the context of radical changes in national higher education policy in the UK, (Gibbs, 2010) in order to identify what variables are valid indicators of the quality of higher education. Here 'quality' means whatever improves learning gains, or improves variables known to predict gains, such as student engagement, or improves educational practices that are known to predict engagement, such as 'close contact' with teachers. This literature gives us strong clues about where to put our efforts if we are really interested in improving student learning. This keynote will summarise what we know - and in doing so attempt to provide a clearer focus of attention for the next decade of Improving Student Learning.


    • Gibbs, G. (2003) Ten Years of Improving Student Learning. In C.Rust (Ed.) Improving Student Learning Symposium Proceedings. Oxford Brookes University: Oxford.
    • Gibbs, G. (2010) Dimensions of Quality. Higher Education Academy: York.


    Graham Gibbs is currently an Honorary Professor at the University of Winchester where he is involved in a large scale research and development project concerned with improving student learning through changing assessment regimes at programme level. He was previously Director of the Oxford Learning Institute, University of Oxford. He founded the Improving Student Learning Symposium and the International Consortium for Educational Development in Higher Education. His leadership of efforts to improving university teaching and learning have been recognised with Honorary Doctorates, including from the University of Utrecht.