Improving learning for higher education students

Researchers from the Institute for Academic Development and the Moray House School of Education and Sport do internationally recognised work to understand how students learn in higher education and how we can collaborate with them to create the best possible learning experiences.


Research hub

Teacher Education, Curriculum and Pedagogy

Research experts

 Professor Velda McCune

Professor Noel Entwistle

Professor Dai Hounsell

Professor Ray Land 

Research centre

Institute for Academic Development

What was the problem? 

We did not have a well-evidenced picture of what makes for high quality learning in higher education. In particular, we were not clear about how high-quality learning might mean different things in different subjects. We needed to know this to be able to give good advice about how to enhance learning and teaching.

What did we do?

We contacted course and module teams in 5 different subject areas in universities across the UK. We collected data about the student learning experiences on these courses by interviewing students and teachers, looking at course documents and giving students questionnaires. Then we worked with the course or module teams to use our findings to enhance the student learning experience. Finally we collected more data from students to find out about how they had experienced the enhanced courses.

What happened next? 

The core concepts and tools from our project have been used in universities around the world to help enhance learning and teaching. These include concepts developed to make sense of high-quality learning such as threshold concepts and ways of thinking and practising in the subject area (WTPs). The two questionnaires we developed are the Learning and Studying Questionnaire (LSQ) and the Experiences of Teaching and Learning Questionnaire (ETLQ). Other researchers have used our tools, concepts and measures to find out more about learning and teaching in higher education.

The University of Helsinki used the LSQ and ETLQ to develop HowULearn, an annual student survey “designed to enhance students’, teachers’ and administrators’ awareness of the learning processes and how those processes are related to students’ experiences of academic quality”, explains Vice-Rector, Professor Sari Lindblom. Surveys based on this work are now used across Denmark and Finland.

The University of Edinburgh research has also been used more widely in the UK and Australia. For example, the Evaluating Teaching Development in Higher Education literature review and toolkit published by AdvanceHE help evaluate the effectiveness of professional development in teaching and learning.

The research on threshold concepts has] transformed the ways disciplinary academics, particularly those in the sciences and in hierarchical disciplines think about their teaching… The language of threshold concepts has become a part of the language used in courses for university teachers worldwide.

Professor David BoudDeakin University, Melbourne, Australia

WTP provides an opportunity to think about curriculum in four key ways… The first is WTP help foster an integrated and holistic view of curriculum. The second is WTP help to focus learning on multiple knowledge forms, as well as production, circulation and application. Third, WTP signal the importance of simultaneously developing student agency whilst inducting students into disciplinary communities. Finally, WTP help focus learning on real-world needs

Dr Sarah BarradellSwinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia

Related publications

The quality of guidance and feedback to students

Teaching wicked problems in higher education: ways of thinking and practising

Assessing students’ experiences of teaching–learning environments and approaches to learning