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Learning or grades? A case for changing assessment to pass/fail marking.


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A collaboration between Muireann O'Keeffe, Clare Gormley, Pip Bruce Ferguson DCU, Dublin, Ireland
There has been mounting criticism of grading systems in recent years although objections about its inherent inequalities are nothing new (Ferrer, 1913, Pike 1973). Graded assessment has been particularly criticised for its promotion of a culture of competitive individualism, passive acceptance of the teacher as authority figure, and general undermining of intrinsic motivations for students to become "independent, critically engaged, self-directed learners" (Tannock, 2015). When added to known issues regarding the unreliability of marking, and the tendency for students to focus on marks at the expense of feedback, the case for moving away from a graded approach seems justifiable.

In our academic development modules we, therefore, wanted to move from a graded approach of assessment to a formative approach. This was due to a number of factors including advice from our external examiner to move away from a fine-grained marking scheme; the fact that similar academic development programmes at local institutions were implementing pass/fail approaches; and a growing awareness of the international literature around the benefits of assessment for learning. Similar to others in the field (Trevitt, Stocks,& Quinlan, 2012) we thought it important to align our assessment practices in line with our philosophy of implementing a feedback-oriented model of learning with our module participants. This approach was taken with a view to empowering students in their learning (Winter, 1993) which could be linked to long-term progress as learners (Hughes, 2011).

Finally we became interested in implementing the pass/fail model to reinforce the idea that academic professional development is about becoming a teaching professional, becoming part of a community of educators, and this should continue after the 'formal' learning ends. According to Daniels et al (2004) (see also Gibbs, Guba & Lincoln, 1989) formative feedback rather than marking is more helpful when fostering a peer mode of feedback and can contribute to a sense of community. On the other hand marking with grades can be an impeding factor to an effective formative and peer feedback process in this context.

This presentation aims to discuss the experience of implementing a pass/fail model of marking on two academic professional development modules and by addressing the following questions:

1. Why was the shift to pass-fail marking undertaken?
2. How did students respond to the new model of marking?
3. What were the lessons learned from this change approach?

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Learning or grades? A case for changing assessment to pass/fail marking.

  1. 1. Learning or grades? A case for changing assessment to pass/fail marking. Dr Muireann O’Keeffe, Clare Gormley, Dr Pip Ferguson Dublin City University (DCU)
  2. 2. Teaching Enhancement Unit (TEU) ▪Who we are? ▪TEU supports teaching and learning development ▪What we do? ▪New approaches to teaching and learning, educational research, and support of educational technologies.
  3. 3. Want big impact? Use big image.
  4. 4. Today we will present: ▪Why was the shift to pass-fail marking undertaken? ▪How did participants respond to the new model of marking? ▪What were the lessons learned from this change approach?
  5. 5. Why was the shift to pass-fail marking undertaken? ▪External examiner report ▪Practices on other academic professional development modules in Ireland and internationally ▪Review of literature in the area (Kennedy, 2010; Daniels et al, 2004; Gibbs, Guba & Lincoln, 1989)
  6. 6. What is academic professional development? Academic professional development is about professionalising teaching in higher education (Gibbs, 2013; Higgs & McCarthy, 2008; O’Farrell & Farrell, 2013) ▪Learning lies at the heart of becoming a professional (Eraut, 1994; Evans, 2008) ▪Developing a teaching identity (Evans, 2008; Palmer, 1998) ▪Participation in a community of educators (Gibbs, 2013; Loads & Campbell, 2015; Lunt, 2008; Pataraia et al., 2015; Sharpe, 2004). ▪Exploration of values and ethics continually developed with peers through joint problem solving (Lunt, 2008, Sachs, 2003).
  7. 7. “My main recommendation would be to consider moving towards a pass/fail outcome (or pass/fail/distinction). A first step might be to consider grading bands, rather than marks. External examiner report:
  8. 8. Assessment for learning ▪Philosophy of implementing a feedback oriented model of learning (Carless, 2015; Nicoll, 2015; Winstone et al., 2016) ▪Empowering students in their learning (Carless, 2015) ▪Linked to long term progress as learners (Hughes, 2011)
  9. 9. The influence of orthogonality Several criteria for each learning outcome Each learning outcome is scrutinised (Moore, 2016)
  10. 10. Desirable features of pass-fail approach The power of feedback: Focus on providing formative (assessment for learning), constructive feedback, rather than attainment of grades Achievement: This approach emphasises the achievement of a range of significant criteria to demonstrate the learning outcomes. To foster a community of teachers in Higher Ed, sharing practice ▪According to Daniels et al (2004) (see also Gibbs, Guba & Lincoln, 1989) formative feedback rather than marking is more helpful when fostering a peer mode of feedback, thus enabling community. Marking with grades can be an impeding factor to an effective formative and peer feedback process. ▪Community of educators, participating in professional development does not need to be a competitive endeavour to be successful, and this should continue after the 'formal' module ends. ▪Reinforcement of the values of becoming a teaching professional
  11. 11. Perceived disadvantages of pass-fail approach ▪ Possibility that that some participants may feel that additional or exceptional effort is not rewarded/recognised. ▪ However other HE institutions (DIT, RCSI) highlight the Teaching Awards process and the SoTL as a means to showcase and celebrate excellence. ▪ Is a neo-liberal model of society/education ready for the potential benefits to an assessment for learning approach?
  12. 12. How did students respond to the new model of marking?
  13. 13. Old rubric
  14. 14. New marking grid
  15. 15. ▪ Strict, prescriptive, restrictive ▪ Transparency ▪ Lack of understanding of grading/assessment (numerical Vs pass/fail) Student comments ▪ Qualification Vs development ▪ How fit is pass-fail for purpose for all disciplines? ▪ Too much space between pass-fail - the bar was too high, had to achieve everything
  16. 16. “ I had never experienced the pass /fail approach before …. but my experience is that it is substantially more capable of driving learning than the enumerated grade (if the latter is the correct description). Meeting the threshold across X number of required headings creates an absolute necessity to cover all the ground. To labour the point perhaps but a pass on a traditional 1- 100 system only really requires one to go in depth into about half the course and given the generally accepted 'wisdom' as articulated by Biggs that students are 'strategic' about assessment systems... Student comment
  17. 17. What were the lessons learned from this change approach?
  18. 18. Our reflections: Positives: ▪Powerful kick start for discussion with students on grading approaches ▪Open discussion reduced perceived unfairness (promoted transparency) ▪Time for processing of feedback is important: an emotional experience (Illeris, 2003; Winstone et al., 2016; Carless 2015) ▪Pass-fail: more rigorous, all students had to meet the criteria set, no compensation
  19. 19. Our reflections: Negatives: ▪Resubmissions: more work for students, more work for assessors ▪Blunt instrument ▪Culture of grading - we are conditioned/acclimatised to numerical grading ▪‘Pass’ as a term or descriptor, is an imperfect expression of achievement
  20. 20. Our reflections: Professional challenges: ▪Opening-up conversation on assessments approaches was professionally challenging ▪I felt it was a stressful, nerve-racking experience as an educator/expert/professional, to open assessment practices to criticism
  21. 21. Recommendations ▪ Allow time to introduce learners to marking approaches (Nicol, 2014; Winstone et al., 2016) ▪ Student participation in the marking approach: explore benefits, drawbacks, gain consensus ▪ Feedback is not hardwired into our academic culture: need for awareness raising on culture of feedback versus numerical grading ▪ Pass is an imperfect expression of achievement - How can we express student achievement in the best way?
  22. 22. Further work ▪Module evaluation ▪External examiner meeting ▪Future focus group with participants
  23. 23. Thanks! What are your experiences in this area? You can find us at: @muireannOK @Clare_Gormley @DocPipNZ
  24. 24. References ▪ ▪Carless, D. (2015) Excellence in university assessment: learning from award-winning practice Routledge, London. ▪Daniels, et al. ( 2004) Five Myths of Assessment. Australian Computer Society, Inc. Proceedings of the 6th Australiasian Computing Education conference (ACE2004), Dunedin, New Zealand. ▪Eraut, M. (1994). Developing professional knowledge and competence. Oxon: Routledge. ▪Evans, L. (2008). Professionalism, professionality and the development of education professionals. British Journal of Educational Studies, 56(1), 20-38. ▪Gibbs, G. (2013). Reflections on the changing nature of educational development. International Journal for Academic Development, 18(1), 4-14. ▪Gibbs, G. (1999) Using assessment strategically to change the way students learn. In: Brown, S. & Glasner, A. (eds) Assessment Matters in Higher Education. Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press. ▪Guba, E. G. & Lincoln, Y. S. (1989) Fourth generation evaluation (London, Sage). ▪Higgs, B., & McCarthy, M. (2008). The changing roles and identities of teachers and learners in higher education in Ireland: an introduction. In B. Higgs, & M. McCarthy, Emerging Issues 2 (pp. 1-9). Dublin: EDIN. ▪Hughes, G. (2011). Towards a personal best : a case for introducing ipsative assessment in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 36 (3), 353-367. ▪Illeris, K. (2003). Three Dimensions of Learning: Contemporary learning theory in the tension field between the cognitive, the emotional and the social. Florida: Krieger. ▪Kennedy, M. (2010). Teacher assessment and the quest for teacher quality: a handbook, American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, Jossey Bass San Francisco ▪Loads, D., & Campbell, F. (2015). Fresh thinking about academic development: authentic, transformative, disruptive? International Journal for Academic Development, 20(4), 355- 369. ▪Lunt, I. (2008). Ethical issues in professional life. In B. Cunningham (Ed.), Exploring Professionalism (pp. 73-98). London: Bedford Way Papers. ▪Moore, I. (2016). Towards Best Practice in Assessment. Presentation for EDIN Conference. ▪Nicol, D (2014) Guiding principles of peer review: Unlocking learners’ evaluative skills. In C. Kreber, C. Anderson, N. Entwistle, and J. McArthur (eds), Advances and Innovations in University Assessment and Feedback, Edinburgh University Press ▪O’Farrell, C., & Farrell, A. (2013). Introduction: Conversations on a journey. In C. O’Farrell, & A. Farrell, Emerging Issues in Higher Education III: From Capacity Building to Sustainability (pp. 1-12). Athlone: EDIN. ▪Palmer, P. (1998). The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ▪Pataraia, N., Margaryan, A., Falconer , I., & Littlejohn, A. (2015). How and what do academics learn through their personal networks? Journal of Further and Higher Education, 39(3), 336–357. ▪RCSI (2014) Assessment strategy rationale. Programme details: PG Diploma in Higher Education. Copyright HPEC RCSI. ▪Reed et al., (2011) Relationship of Pass/Fail Grading and Curriculum Structure With Well-Being Among Preclinical Medical Students: A Multi-Institutional Study. Academic Medicine. 86 (11) ▪Sachs, J. (2003). The Activist Teaching Profession. Buckingham: Open University Press. ▪Sharpe, R. (2004). How do professionals learn and develop? Implications for staff and educational developers. In D. Baume, & P. Kahn, Enhancing Staff and Educational Development (p. 132). ▪Winstone, N., Nash., R., Parker, M., & Rowntree, J. (2016). Supporting learners’ engagement with feedback: A systematic review and a taxonomy of recipience processes. Educational Psychologist. ▪Winter, 1993