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New research suggests levels of independent study are more important than contact hours in determining how much students learn

  • 8 January 2018
  • By Tim Blackman

In What affects how much students learn? (HEPI Policy Note 5), Professor Tim Blackman, the Vice-Chancellor of Middlesex University, undertakes new analysis of the annual Student Academic Experience Survey and shows students’ self-reported learning gain depends upon:

  • access to high-quality teaching;
  • high levels of independent study (especially over 20 hours a week);
  • support for students with low wellbeing;
  • avoiding high levels of paid work (over 17 hours a week);
  • location of study, with extra challenges for London-based students; and
  • studying at an institution with a Gold rating in the Teaching Excellence Framework.

Professor Tim Blackman, the author of the Policy Note, said:

The Student Academic Experience Survey is a rich source of data on what matters to student learning in higher education. This Policy Note reports a statistical analysis of the inter-relationships between the many variables in the survey and how much of an independent effect these variables have on whether students report having learnt “a lot” during their studies.

High-quality teaching emerges as especially important, regardless of other factors such as students’ prior attainment. Some variables, such as students’ hours of independent study, make a bigger difference the higher their value, while others – such as wellbeing – have a threshold effect, with low wellbeing significantly increasing the likelihood of not having learnt a lot.

The results also cast doubt on accelerated two year degrees as the best way for many students to achieve their full potential.

Nick Hillman, the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said:

We do not know anything like enough about how students learn or how much they are learning. We need a more scientific approach to this issue, which our new report helps deliver.

Asking students how much they are learning and cross-referencing this with their personal circumstances is innovative, illuminating and important. Some of the results are intuitive. Good quality teaching matters as does lots of independent study, while low well-being and many hours of paid work have a negative impact. But some of the results are surprising. Contact hours, ethnicity and whether or not students live at home make less difference.

Learning gain is likely to be one of the top concepts in higher education in 2018 and beyond. No one can pretend they have all the answers, but this work shows beyond doubt where we should focus.

Notes for Editors

  1. This analysis is based on data from the Student Academic Experience Survey undertaken each year by the HEPI and the Higher Education Academy. For details of the most recent wave, see:
  2. The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) was established in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan. We are funded by organisations and universities that wish to see a vibrant higher education debate, as well as through our own events. HEPI is a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity.


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