Moving to pass/fail assessment in 2020 (part 1)

Implications for practice

From early April 2020 UAL moved all first year undergraduate units from graded to pass/fail assessment.

During the coronavirus pandemic the intention was to simplify the assessment process and ease the pressure during a very stressful time for staff and students. For these students, the most important thing was that they bank their credit and progress. This approach has continued into the current academic year.

To encourage practice sharing and dialogue among staff around these changes the Exchange facilitated 2 online open discussion sessions with colleagues in November and December, highlighting key considerations in successfully using pass/fail assessment.

The sessions were led by Vikki Hill and Neil Currant, both Educational Developers within the Teaching, Learning and Employability Exchange

Benefits and risks of pass/fail assessment 

Neil Currant began the first session by framing pass/fail assessment: 

On the plus side the benefits of pass/fail assessment, according to the literature, are that it: 

  • Can reduce stress and anxiety 
  • Can reduce competition and encourage collaboration between students  
  • Can reduce ‘drop-out’ rates 
  • Is more representative of ‘real world’ feedback and assessment 
  • Can encourage experimentation 
  • May encourage greater focus on learning, self-direction and intrinsic motivation 
  • May focus student attention on qualitative judgements of work via feedback 

But on the other hand there is a risk that it: 

  • May reduce student effort and/or impact attendance 
  • May not provide an accurate picture of where the student is achieving 
  • Does not indicate to the student their level above pass threshold 
  • Can be confusing for students coming from graded school environment and/or then going into a graded second year. 

The emphasis is therefore shifted to giving clear and specific feedback to students to mitigate these risks. This should help them identify strengths/weaknesses related to the assessment criteria: what is what going well and what is needed to improve? 

Written phrases and feedback can also be misinterpreted by students so a second point is how to improve student literacy around assessment. 

Finally, if there is an emphasis on formative feedback, given summative feedback is only Pass or Fail, how can we ensure consistency of feedback (in both frequency and quality) across students and courses at UAL? 

Developing student feedback literacy

Vikki Hill then picked up on Neil’s points around feedback literacy. Part of the Creative Mindsets project is around developing growth mindsets in students.  One activity helps students consider the language they use in crits to encourage progress and development of fellow students. 

UAL Student Voices also give real examples of UAL student experiences around feedback. 

“Feedback only becomes real when it has an impact on learning”  

“The fundamental justification of feedback must be to change what students can do. The acts of teachers must be judged in light of their impact on learning. The process of feedback might be prompted by what teachers say or write, but it is not concluded until action by students occurs.” 

Boud and Molloy, 2013

Overall, attendees were asked to consider how to use this pass/fail opportunity to help students develop their capacity to seek, interpret and respond to feedback? 

Open discussion 

A wide ranging discussion covered a multitude of issues. Attendees were encouraged to add thoughts, questions and provocations to the Pass/Fail session Padlet board

Issues identified and discussed included: 

1) Culture and expectations from students as they move into the second year. 

Having received pass/fail in the first year there’s student anxiety about not knowing where they are in grade terms when some second year units will count towards their final degree classifications.  

2) How does pass/fail impact on awarding gaps?

How can we track gaps if only pass/fail is recorded in first year? Linked to this, how can tutors identify and flag struggling students who are only ‘just’ passing, and then help them? Failing students need support, especially when tutors know that next unit is graded and the student is currently unlikely to pass. 

3) Impact of curriculum and unit design

Taking a step back, curriculum and unit design is key to allowing achievement/stopping failure. A mismatch between units designed for grades being switched to pass/fail model may be one reason tutors are struggling currently. 

4) Feedback literacy co-constructs success

Helping students to understand criteria and the social practice of feedback allows us to co-construct success. Feedback literacy is important, given much of art and design is not a binary pass/fail situation with one correct answer, unlike a maths problem or driving test.  And students will progress into working situations which are much more fluid.  

5) What’s the purpose of feedback?

Or a grade? Why have pass/fail? Could we make a leap and imagine a narrative commentary only conferred alongside a degree? Words count much more when grades are not available. 

6) Institutional support for new teachers is key

Whether associate lecturers who are starting out or more experienced but new to UAL.  Training should cover how staff use the criteria themselves as well as how to develop feedback literacy with their students. 

Conclusion and link to next session

Vikki and Neil thanked attendees for their participation. It’s hugely encouraging that there is an appetite to explore these topics amongst staff. 

Read more about the follow-on session, including further reading, links and questions for course teams to consider in their practice.

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