Moving to pass/fail assessment in 2020 (part 2)

Implications for practice

Following a successful November session on pass/fail assessment, this second discussion took place in early December to explore some of the issues and challenges raised in more detail. This workshop was again co-facilitated by Neil Currant and Vikki Hill.   Attendees were encouraged to add new thoughts, questions and provocations to the Pass/Fail session Padlet board.  Read on for a summary of the points discussed. UAL staff can access the session 2 slides here (references are also repeated at the end of this post for everyone else).

Pass/fail is an opportunity to enhance our teaching, learning and assessment practices 

The session began with a few words on grading systems and their purpose.  Grades were originally designed to rank students against each other by relative performance, i.e. normative grading. Today we use grading against pre-determined criteria and so it should be possible for all students to do well. Students are not directly competing against and at the expense of each other.  

The themes from the first session were then grouped into the following points for consideration by course teams.  The challenges were outlined and discussion interrogated a number of practices at UAL, both good and less so.   

1) Differentiated teaching

If units are not graded how do you identify the students who are struggling and help them?  Or, equally, how are we able to identify units with curriculum design issues? 

How can we ensure that top end students are still stretched, engaged and don’t lose out, whilst appropriate support is targeted to lower end students? 

A BBC documentary The Classroom Experiment (watch episode 1 and particularly episode 2 via Box of Broadcasts using your UAL login) highlights that whilst the move away from grades can initially raise anxiety levels in both students and teachers accustomed to graded assessments, it can also positively affect behaviour, feedback literacy and learning over time.  

2) How experienced are the staff leading year 1? 

With pass/fail assessment it is arguably more important to have more experienced staff leading year 1 to provide high quality feedback and induct students into the culture of the course and the discipline.  

How are staff supported to develop assessment literacy? We need to work with and across both more/less experienced staff to improve feedback practices. 

3) Moving on from pass/fail year 1 to graded year 2. 

How can students be supported to judge their performance? What mechanisms are in place to help students develop this capability? 

Some students come from highly graded environments, with some schools giving students weekly ‘effort’ grades for behaviour (let alone taking the actual A-Level exams), whilst others will come from more relaxed schools or different overseas school systems and cultures entirely. 

4) Units designed for grading

What are the implications when our units were not designed for pass/fail assessment? What changes to unit briefs are needed to better support this type of assessment? 

5) What are the course team’s beliefs?

What beliefs does the course team hold about pass/fail assessment that can impact on the student experience of assessment and attainment? 

What is meant by ‘struggling’ or ‘failing’? Should we fail students in year 1? Is it the piece of paper that matters or the level of personal development?  Or the creative outlet even if academic achievement is not stellar? 

These lead on to other fundamental questions about the purpose of university and education which are outside the scope of this session. 


Vikki and Neil thanked attendees for their participation. It’s hugely encouraging that there is obviously an appetite to explore these topics amongst staff. Whilst there may not be obvious answers, questioning our assessment practices can open up opportunities to try out different approaches to learning and teaching. 

Want to know more? 

If you’d like to know more contact Vikki Hill or Neil Currant

Further reading and resources  

UAL Assessment Regulations 

UAL AEM and Attainment team  

Blueprint slides on improving formative assessment practices available via Canvas (UAL staff login needed).  

Dahlgren, Fejes, Abrandt-Dahlgren and Trowald (2009) ‘Grading Systems, Features of Assessment and StudentsApproaches to Learning’ Teaching in Higher Education, v14 n2, p185-194 

Hunter, Mann & Coats (2013) ‘Sharing Good Practice: Pass/Fail Assessment Strategy in Fine Arts BA (Hons)’, presentation to Faculty of Arts, York St John University, 22 April 2013. 

Melrose, S (2017) Pass/Fail and Discretionary Grading: A Snapshot of Their Influences on Learning Open Journal of Nursing, 07, p185-192.  

Rose, T. (2016) The end of average, New York: HarperCollins.  

Schwab, K. Moseley, B. & Dustin, D. (2018) Grading Grades as a Measure of Student Learning, SCHOLE: A Journal of Leisure Studies and Recreation Education, 33:2, p87-95 

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