Teaching & Learning


‘Ditch the grade when giving feedback!’ advises assessment expert at UCL Education Conference

28 April 2022

The 2022 UCL Education Conference explored how to transform assessment practices, through a day of keynotes, presentations, workshops and asynchronous papers.

Two men in conversation in front of UCL posters

‘Transforming assessment’ was the theme for this year’s UCL Education Conference, held on Wednesday 6 April 2022. More than 220 delegates attended the in-person event which returned to the IOE, Bloomsbury campus for the first time since 2019.  

The programme included a mix of sessions from invited speakers, and from UCL educators and students. The conference offered a total of 111 presenters, across 52 presentations and 25 parallel sessions. Nine asynchronous presentations were also published on the conference blog, highlighting more of the innovative assessment practice taking place at UCL.  

UCL President and Provost, Dr Michael Spence, opened the conference by setting out why assessment remains a vital area to continue to explore and discuss. While we’ve shown some gradual improvement, Assessment and Feedback remains our lowest-scoring area in the NSS and, across the board, is the focus of much dissatisfaction in student feedback. We’ve successfully implemented an online assessment platform (Assessment UCL) at speed, but we need to continue thinking creatively about alternative assessment formats to ensure assessment truly supports all students’ learning and draws on innovative developments across the sector.  

It’s in this context that delegates spent the day discovering how UCL staff and students are currently working to transform assessment and feedback across the university.  

Radically rethinking feedback 

Keynote speaker Professor David Boud, Alfred Deakin Professor and Foundation Director of the Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning, joined us online from Deakin University, Australia.  UCL’s Mary Richardson (Professor of Educational Assessment, IOE) expertly facilitated a dialogue between David and the audience on his ideas around the future of feedback, the role of students in feedback processes and how courses can be designed to effectively use feedback. 

David stressed that assessment is not done for its own intrinsic value – it should improve students’ learning in some way. As such, we need to judge feedback in terms of its impact. 

Without some change from students as a result of the feedback, we’re pushing a button and hoping something happens. Don’t base it on hope…judge the output – Professor David Boud. 

David also pointed to evidence that students don't consider feedback as much if it is received with the grade. He advocates decoupling the letter grade from feedback so that students get feedback before the grade, but also stressed there is an opportunity to change the feedback culture more substantially by routinely giving feedback without a graded assessment task.  

Grades are very distracting in the feedback business…the purpose of feedback is not to justify a grade. Of course, we need to explain why they got the mark they did, but we need to give the support, guidance, exemplars etc. for how they take things forward. We need to leave them a pathway for how they take things forward – Professor David Boud. 

To close, David advised the most urgent need we have for assessment practice in higher education right now is some necessary housecleaning to get rid of bad habits of the past. He recommends we start by separating out assessment units from teaching units so we can focus on assessing the learning outcomes at the programme level, rather than the small level of the module.  

Education Marketplace 

The Students' Union UCL and eight of UCL's central services/teams, including Library Services, UCL East and Sustainable UCL were on hand over lunchtime at the Education Marketplace to set out their upcoming projects or initiatives and discuss any particular questions, ideas or concerns. Read the UCL Digital Assessment Team’s reflections on the engaging conversations about designing alternative assessments that took place at their stall. 

Shaping the future of education at UCL 

In the afternoon keynote, Professor Kathy Armour shared some of her reflections on assessment at UCL since taking up the post of Vice-Provost (Education and Student Experience) in January this year.  

Kathy set out some of the common frustrations around assessments felt by UCL staff and students. Students continue to report a lack of accountability around delayed feedback, confusion about where to find exam information and frustration that they don’t get to benefit from improvements made as a result of their module evaluations. On the other hand, staff report an unmanageable marking and feedback workload.  

UCL is the best-ranked university in the world for Education. If we know and use our own research, we should, Kathy suggested, be the best ranked for assessment practice. While we must operate within a broader regulatory environment, she believes there is still plenty within our gift to change and control as part of the new, if we understand the context in which we’re working and draw on evidence-based research to prepare ourselves for the future. UCL Strategic Plan 2022-27, if we understand the context in which we’re working and draw on evidence-based research to prepare ourselves for the future.  

My role is to get rid of barriers, working with you to identify pain points that make workload intolerable for staff and students, or make it difficult to innovate, so we can be the best – Professor Kathy Armour. 

Education Awards shortlist announced  

Closing out an engaging plenary session, Professor Kathy Armour was joined by Ayman Benmati (Students’ Union UCL Education Officer), to announce the shortlist for this year's Education Awards. The awards celebrate the achievements of staff and their contributions to UCL’s learning community. The award categories and nominees can be viewed here. The inspirational winners will be announced on Wednesday 8 June 2022. 

Continue the conversation

Were you unable to attend this year’s conference? Or did you find it hard to choose between sessions on the day? You don’t need to miss out! Many of the day’s presenters have now posted about their work on the UCL Education Conference 2022 blog. The details some of the excellent work UCL staff continue to do for, and with their students to improve assessment, including additional asynchronous content submitted before the conference. 

Conference recordings 

Full recordings of Dr Michael Spence's introduction and Professor David Boud in conversation with Professor Mary Richardson will be published shortly on the Teaching and Learning Portal, so watch this space!