Pebble in the pond: scaled active learning in Engineering

My colleague, Dr Jenny Griffiths, talked excitedly on Twitter and then in the office the other day about the annual ‘Pebble in the Pond’ activity which forms an exciting and central part to the induction of new students to the IEP at UCL. It sounds amazing so I asked Jenny to share some thoughts on it in this guest post.


“Wood! Wood! Do we have enough wood? Do we have any wood? Where can we get wood for next week NOW?” (Dr. Fiona Truscott, September 2022) 

Having moved out of the UCL Engineering offices when I moved to UCL Arena, followed by pandemic remoteness for a while means that memories of the immense back-room organisation for teaching had drifted to the back of my mind. These joyfully returned when I spent some time at the SEFI conference with UCL Engineering staff.  

The beginning of the academic year means one thing for Integrated Engineering Programme (IEP) first year students: Pebble In The Pond. This ambitious teaching activity introduces over 800 students to collaboration, design thinking, communication and making mistakes through a bit of competition, large amounts of fun and huge amounts of cardboard, tape, elastic bands, paper and wood. The students work in small parallel teams on individual parts of a larger ‘machine’ that must transport a pebble from one side of a room to another in the style of Joseph’s machines and Crazy Contraptions (or the Great Egg Race for connoisseurs of 80s TV). 

The activity runs several times in the very first week of term to accommodate all of the students – there’s no hall big enough for them all at once! Nevertheless, the buzz when you walk into the room is incredible. There’s noise, mess, and most of all, new students learning to work with each other and have fun in this low stakes environment.  ripples in shallow water atop a bed of pebbles

So why run the activity? It’s fun and a great icebreaker, but more fundamentally, it’s also good education and sets the tone for much of the work the students will do during their degree. The IEP has a spine of project-based learning built in from the very beginning and Pebble is the first step in the scaffolding of students from task-based projects through to week-long discipline-based projects (scenarios) and onto true global-problem projects. The active learning allows students to practice and put their technical knowledge into instant use. In just a few hours students apply design thinking, discover the importance of an iterative design, build, test, modify cycle, find that systems integration is key to a big project, and that all of this is facilitated by good communication with others. They then get to reflect on this over the next few weeks, using this experience to shape their learning and thinking on the core transferable and employability skills that are essential for graduates and written into the accreditation requirements of Engineering degree programmes 

Part of my role in academic development in UCL Arena is looking out for inspiration from our faculties to share with the wider community, and ‘Pebble’ is a great example of that. It shows that we can create engaging learning activities that support development of employability skills while giving students the opportunity to apply a few discipline-specific skills (such systems integration and design thinking for engineers) along the way. It’s also designed as a springboard for student reflection on these skills as they move further into their degree programme. 

Engaging active learning can be done at scale, and I’m looking forward to next year’s already. 


Big tech headlights

Listen (7 mins) or read (5 mins)

Whether it’s non-existent problems, unscalable solutions or a lack of imagination, we need to be careful about what educational technology appears to promise.

I have written before about how easy it is to get dazzled by shiny tech things and, most dangerously, thinking that those shiny things will herald an educational sea change. More often than not they don’t. Or if they do, it’s nowhere near the pace often predicted.  It is remarkable to look back at the promises interactive whiteboards (IWBs) held for example. I think I still have a broken Promethean whiteboard pen in a drawer somewhere. I was sceptical from the off that one of the biggest selling points seemed to be something like: “You can get students up to move things around”. I like tech but as someone teaching 25+ hours per week (how the heck did I do that?) I could immediately see a lot of unnecessary faff. Most in my experience in schools and colleges suggest they are, at best, glorified projectors rarely fulfilling promise. Research I have seen on impact tends to be muted at best and studies in HE like this one (Benoit, 2022) suggest potential detrimental impacts. IWBs for me are emblematic of much of what I feel is often wrong with the way ed tech is purchased and used. Big companies selling big ideas to people in educational institutions with purchasing power and problems to solve but, crucially, at least one step removed from the teaching coal face. Nevertheless, because of my role at the time (‘ILT programme coordinator’, thank you very much) I did my damnedest to get colleagues using IWBs interactively and at all (I was going to say ‘effectively’) other than as a screen until I realised that it was a pointless endeavour. For most colleagues the IWB was a solution to a problem that didn’t exist. close up of oldsmobile headlights in monochrome

A problem that is better articulated is about the extent of engagement of students coupled with tendencies towards uni-directional teaching and passivity in large classes.  One solution is ‘Clickers’.  These have been kicking around since the 1960s in fact and foreshadowed modern student / audience response systems like Mentimeter, still sometimes referred to as clickers (probably by older generation types like me). Research was able to show improvements in engagement, enjoyment, academic improvement and useful intelligence for lecturing staff (see Kay and LeSage, 2009; Keough, 2012; Hedgcock and Rouwenhort, 2014) but the big problem was scalability. Enthusiasts could secure the necessary hardware, trial use with small groups of students and report positively on impact. I remember the gorgeous aluminium cases our media team held containing maybe 30 devices each. I also recall the form filling, the traipse to the other campus, the device registering and the laborious question authoring processes. My enthusiasm quickly waned and the shiny cases gathered dust on media room shelves. I expect there are plenty still doing so and many more with gadgets and gizmos that looked so cool and full of potential but quickly became redundant. BYOD (Bring your own device) and cloud-based alternatives changed all that of course. The key is not whether enthusiasts can get the right kit but whether very busy teachers can get it and the results versus effort balance sheet firmly favours the former. There are of course issues (socio-economic, data, confidentiality, and security to name a few!) with cloud-base BYOD solutions but the tech is never going to be of the overnight obsolete variety. This is why I am very nervous about big ticket kit purchases such as VR headsets or smart glasses and very sceptical about the claims made about the extent to which education in the near future will be virtual. Second Life’s second life might be a multi-million pound white elephant.

Finally, one of the big buzzes in the kinds of bubbles I live in on Twitter is about the ‘threat’ of AI. On the one hand you have the ‘kid in the sweetshop’ excitement of developers marvelling at AI text authoring and video making and on the other doom-mongering teachers frothing about what these (massively inflated, currently) affordances offer our cheating, conniving, untrustworthy youth. The argument goes that problems of plagiarism, collusion and supervillain levels of academic dishonesty will be exacerbated massively. The ed tech solution: More surveillance! More checking! Plagiarism detection! Remote proctoring! I just think we need to say ‘whoa!’ before committing ourselves to anything and see whether we might imagine things a little differently. Firstly, do existing systems (putting aside major ethical concerns) for, say, plagiarism detection, actually do what we imagine them to do? They can pick up poor academic practice but can they detect ‘intelligent’ reworking?   The problem is: How will we know what someone has written themselves otherwise? But where is our global perspective on this? Where is our 21st century eye? Where is acknowledgement of existing tools used routinely by many? There are many ways to ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ and different educational traditions value different ways to represent this. Remixes, mashups and sampling are a fundamental part of popular culture and the 20s zeitgeist. Could we not better embrace that reality and way of being? Spellcheckers and grammar checkers do a lot of the work that would have meant lower marks in the past but we use them now unthinkingly. Is it such a leap to imagine positive and open employment of new tools such as AI?  Solutions to collusion in online exams offer more options it seems: 1. Scrap online exams and get them all back in huge halls or 2. [insert Mr Burns’ gif] employ remote proctoring. The issues centre on students’ abilities to 1. Look things up to make sure they have the correct answer and 2. Work together to ensure they have a correct answer. I find it really hard not see that as a good thing and an essential skill. I want people to have the right answer. If it is essential to find what any individual student knows, our starting point needs to be re-thinking the way we assess NOT looking for ed tech solutions so that we can carry on regardless. While we’re thinking about that we may also want to re-appraise the role new tech does and will likely play in the ways that we access and share information and do what we can to weave it in positively rather than go all King Canute.

Benoit, A. (2022) Investigating the Impact of Interactive Whiteboards in Higher Education. A Case Study. Journal of Learning Spaces

Hedgcock, W. and Rouwenhorst, R. (2014) ‘Clicking their way to success: using student response systems as a tool for feedback.’ Journal for Advancement of Marketing Education,

Kay, R. and LeSage, A. (2009) ‘Examining the benefits and challenges of using audience response systems: A review of the literature.’ Computers & Education

Keough, S. (2012) ‘Clickers in the Classroom: A Review and a Replication.’ Journal of Management Education


Things we can do

As it’s summer, my writing efforts are directed elsewhere currently but still I wanted to share this resource compiled by Dave Hitchcock. It’s a ‘short practical guide for university lecturers’ in terms of ways to think, act and be to acknowledge and minimise impacts of student poverty. The practical advice is very useful such as:

“Office Hours. Make a habit of flexible hours insofar as your schedule permits and ensure you provide students with online slots in addition to in-person slots to allow commuting students to save costs by talking to you remotely.”

See this dynamic document here:

Only tangentially related but, still, suggesting ways we can change our thinking and practices in terms of the centrality of grades is the recording of the slot I was invited to present at the recent ‘Digitally Enhanced Education’ series:

The arguments in the above might feel stronger if viewed via the lens of student perspectives on grading as explored in this QAA podcast- it’s a complex and nuanced picture. At the very least we need to be alert to tendencies to assume what is wanted, to generalise our assumptions/ thinking and to close our minds to possible alternatives to long standing and conventional practices.

APT ’22 Talking hybrid (aka HyFlex/ mixed mode etc etc…)

Friday 1st July 2022 is the in person part of the APT (Academic Practice and Technology) conference. In its 12th year, this conference, co-hosted by UCL, LSE and Imperial, re-emerges from online only with some interesting modalities of its own. The conference includes a mix of synchronous online, asynchronous content pre-recorded by colleagues from across the sector and synchronous in-person roundtables, workshops and hackathons. The opening event from Professor Cate Denial, ‘Pedagogy of kindness in action’ generated a huge amount of interest and ongoing discussion. The recording and information on all three keynoters is available on the APT site.

I will be chairing a discussion session that brings together three related papers and a panel of colleagues from City, UoL, Edinburgh Napier and Kingston, the outline of which can be seen below:

[click slide and use arrow keys on your keyboard to advance slides or hover over bottom left of slides to find navigation arrows]

I will also be co-hosting a roundtable on hybrid/ hyflex inclusivity tensions with UCL’s head of Digital Accessibility, Ben Watson, and my Arena colleague, Alex Standen, who will be doing a ‘sorry I can’t be with you tonight recorded performance! The slides including pre-recorded videos from Ben and Alex are here:

[click slide and use arrow keys on your keyboard to advance slides or hover over bottom left of slides to find navigation arrows]

Finally, recordings of speakers from the Hybrid symposium event at UCL in June ’22 are included below for convenience and quick reference. The videos below comprise recordings of Ruth Puhr, Fiona Strawbridge (with me chipping in) and Nataša Perović  Profiles page of speakers.

Will Covid-19 finally catalyse the way we exploit digital options in assessment and feedback?

Listen 7m32 s or read below

(Previously posted on the Bloomsbury Learning Exchange blog, 29/3/21) 

The typical child will learn to listen first, then talk, then read, then write. In life, most of us tend to use these abilities proportionately in roughly the same order: listen most, speak next most, read next most frequently and write the least. Yet in educational assessment and feedback, and especially in higher education (HE), we value writing above all else. After writing comes reading, then speaking and the least assessed is listening. In other words, we value most what we use least. I realise this is a huge generalisation and that there are nuances and arguments to be had around this, but it is the broad principle and tendencies here that I am interested in. Given the ways in which technology makes such things as recording and sharing audio and video much easier than even a few years ago (i.e. tools that provide opportunity to favour speaking and listening), it is perhaps surprising how conservative we are in HE when it comes to changing assessment and feedback practices. We are, though, at the threshold of an opportunity whereby our increased dependency on technology, the necessarily changing relationships we are all experiencing due to the ongoing implications of Covid-19 and the inclusive, access and pedagogic affordances of the digital mean we may finally be at a stage where change is inevitable and inexorable.

In 2009 while working in Bradford, I did some research on using audio and video feedback on a postgraduate teaching programme. I was amazed at the impact, the increased depth of understanding of the content of the feedback and the positivity with which it was received. I coupled it with delayed grade release too. The process was: Listen to (or watch) the feedback, e-mail me with the grade band the feedback suggested and then I would return the actual grade and use the similarity or difference (usually, in fact, there was pretty close alignment) to prompt discussion about the work and what could be fed forward. A few really did not like the process but this was more to do with not liking the additional process involved in finding out the grades they had been given rather than the feedback medium itself. Only one student (out of 39) preferred written feedback as a default and this included three deaf students (I arranged for them to receive BSL signed feedback recorded synchronously with an interpreter while I spoke the words).  Most of the students not only favoured it, they actively sought it. While most colleagues were happy to experiment or at least consider the pros, cons and effort needed, at least one senior colleague was a little frosty, hinting that I was making their life more difficult. On balance, I found that once I had worked through the mechanics of the process and established a pattern, I was actually saving myself perhaps 50% of marking time per script though there certainly was some front-loading of effort necessary for the first time.  I concluded that video feedback was powerful but, at that time, too labour- and resource-intensive and stuck with audio feedback for most of the students unless video was requested or needed. I continued to use it in varying ways in my teaching, supporting others in their experimentation and, above all, persuading the ‘powers that be’ that it was not only legitimate but that it was powerful and, for many, preferable. I also began encouraging students to consider audio or video alternatives to reflective pieces as I worked up a digital alternative to the scale-tipping professional portfolios that were the usual end of year marking delight.

Microphone in close up as seen from the perspective of the user

Two years later I found myself in a new job back in London and confronted with a very resistant culture. As is not uncommon, it is an embedded faith and dependency on the written word that determines policy and practice rather than research and pedagogy. In performative cultures, written ‘evidence’ carries so much more weight and trust, apparently irrespective of impact. Research (much better and more credible than my own) has continued to show similar outcomes and benefits (see summary in Winstone and Carless, 2019) but the overwhelming majority of feedback is still of the written/ typed variety. Given the wealth of tools available and the voluminous advocacy generated through the scholarship of teaching and learning and potential of technology in particular (see Newman and Beetham, 2018, for example), it is often frustrating for me that assessment and feedback practices that embrace the opportunities afforded by digital media seemed few and far between.  So, will there ever be a genuine shift towards employing digital tools for assessment design and feedback? As technology makes these approaches easier and easier, what is preventing it?  In many ways the Covid-19 crisis, the immediate ‘emergency response’ of remote teaching and assessing and the way things are shaping up for the future have given a real impetus to notions of innovative assessment. We have seen how many of us were forced to confront our practice in terms of timed examinations and, amid inevitable discussions around the proctoring possibilities technology offered (to be clear: I am not a fan!), we saw discussions about effective assessment and feedback processes occurring and a re-invigorated interest in how we might do things differently.  I am hoping we might continue those discussions to include all aspects of assessment from the informal, in-session formative activities we do through to the ’big’, high-stakes summatives.

Change will not happen easily or rapidly, however. Hargreaves (2010) argues that a principal enemy of education change is social and political conservatism and I would add to that a form of departmental, faculty or institutional conservatism that errs on the side of caution lest evaluation outcomes are negatively impacted.  Covid-19 has disrupted everything and whilst tensions remain between the conservative (very much of the small ‘c’ variety in this context) and change-oriented voices, it is clear that recognition is growing of a need to modify (rather than transpose) pedagogic practices in new environments and this applies equally to assessment and feedback. In the minds of many lecturers, the technology that is focal to approaches to technology enhanced learning is often ill-defined or uninspiring (Bayne, 2015) and the frequent de-coupling of tech investment from pedagogically informed continuing professional development (CPD) opportunities (Compton and Almpanis, 2018) has often reinforced these tendencies towards pedagogic conservatism. Pragmatism, insight, digital preparedness, skills development, and new ways of working through necessity are combining to reveal a need for and willingness to embrace significant change in assessment practices.

As former programme leader of an online PGCertHE (a lecturer training programme) I was always in the very fortunate position to collect and share theories, principles and practices with colleagues, many of whom were novices in teaching. Though of course they had experienced HE as students they were less likely to have had a more fossilised sense of what assessments and feedback should or could look like. I also have the professional and experiential agency to draw on research-informed practices not only by talking about them but through exemplification and modelling (Compton and Almpanis, 2019). By showing that unconventional assessment (and feedback) are allowed and can be very rewarding we are able to sow seeds of enthusiasm that lead to a bottom-up (if still slow!) shift away from conservative assessment practices. Seeing some colleagues embrace these strategies is rewarding but I would love to see more.


Bayne, S. (2015). ‘What’s the matter with ‘technology-enhanced learning?’ Learning, Media and Technology, 9 (1), 251-257.

Bryan, C., & Clegg, K. (Eds.). (2019). Innovative assessment in higher education: A handbook for academic practitioners. Routledge.

Compton, M. & Almpanis, T. (2019) Transforming lecturer practice and mindset: Re-engineered CPD and modelled use of cloud tools and social media by academic developers. Chapter in Rowell, C (ed.) Social Media and Higher Education: Case studies, Reflections and Analysis. Open Book Publishers.

Compton, M., & Almpanis, T. (2018). One size doesn’t fit all: rethinking approaches to continuing professional development in technology enhanced learning. Compass: Journal of Learning and Teaching,11(1).

Hargreaves, A. (2010). ‘Presentism, individualism, and conservatism: The legacy of Dan Lortie’s Schoolteacher: A sociological study’. Curriculum Inquiry, 40(1), 143-154.

Newman, T. and Beetham, H. (2018) Student Digital Experience Tracker 2018: The voices of 22,000 UK learners. Bristol: Jisc.

Winstone, N., & Carless, D. (2019). Designing effective feedback processes in higher education: A learning-focused approach. Routledge.

Building new cultures: A visit to UCL East (Marshgate)

A panoramic photo realistic illustrtaion of the UCL East campus showing Marshgate and Poole Street as well as the Mittel Orbit

I have worked in primary and secondary schools, further education colleges, overseas colleges & universities and at three UK universities. So much of the identity of all those institutions was not only woven into the fabric of the buildings but, in many ways, defined and moulded by the spaces themselves. As an alumnus of Thames Poly (aka University of Greenwich, my former employer), I experienced a rough round the edges, radical, class-conscious undergraduate degree that oozed 60s idealism from the concrete 60s edifice that was plonked awkwardly on a bunch of shops in Woolwich in South East London (this wasn’t in the 60s by the way; I’m not that old). That block is now flats and, with the change in name, the poly has become a uni and has moved the largest part of its operation to the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. How much of its current identity is wrapped in the huge selling point that is those buildings? How much of that cultural capital seeps into the subconscious of the staff and students as well as into the conscious marketing, framing and ongoing aspirations? Frankly, the place I studied at and the place I used to work at couldn’t be more alien to one another.

I have seen new buildings or radical re-fits from a ‘college without walls’ (disaster!) to a construction hub that was almost all atrium along with its too small triangular classrooms. When I moved to UCL I loved the post lockdown opportunities to visit many of its Bloomsbury buildings: the old, the repurposed and the refurbished. Many of the spaces are locked into pre 20th century architecture or, like the IoE buildings, echoic of late 60s/ early 70s modernist design (and protest!). Limitations on space and light in particular are ‘themes’ so I was delighted to be able, with a dozen or so colleagues, visit the Marshgate building of the new UCL East campus yesterday. Due to open in September 2023 it is paired with the One  Poole Street building which is both study and living space (this one opens in September ’22). On the site of the Olympic Park and a stone’s throw from West Ham United’s new stadium (you can’t have everything I guess), the broader site is welcoming, feels quite safe and is very accessible by public transport and bike.

the helter skelter building in stratford olympic park in london is a messy red scaffolding like structure and it sits on the right of this picture. The left is dominated by a huge concrete structure of eight floors with a wall of narrow windows that is the Marshgate building

UCL East Marshgate building with West Ham stadium and ‘Mittel Orbit’

The UCL site has all the accurate information you could want about location, development, opening and maps by the way, so I won’t bother repeating any of it here!

Our tour didn’t include an inside visit to the ‘One Poole Street’ building as it is very close to completion and will be used from September this year. The twin block is multiple stories of student accommodation atop teaching spaces which include a cinema that it is hoped will also be a community venue. The landscaping, shifting of bus stops (108 route) and general polishing were very much in evidence. At least one of us was heard to say: “I’d like to live here!”

Poole Street Building- this is two towers of accommodation more than 15 storeys high on top of flatter blocks which contain classrooms and other usual university things

One Poole Street building (formerly known as Poole Street West)

Our tour was led by Helen Fisher who is the UCL East operations lead and we were accompanied by the UCL East Director, Professor Paola Lettieri, as well as representatives from the building contractors. Three of my colleagues from Arena were there and, after a ‘short’ delay while one of our sub-party was found some trousers, we trudged to the entrance in our hard hats, boots and protective gloves.

UCL name in relief in front entrance of Marshgate building at UCL East

Entrance to Marshgate building showing UCL logo in relief

front view of as yet unfinished marshgate building at the new UCL East campus

‘Front’ view of Marshgate though over time this may not be the main entrance

Whilst it’s quite hard to visualise how some of the spaces will look, being there really helped me to  appreciate the scale and the vision. The thing that I kept coming back to as I listened to Helen and others enthuse about the realisation of the spaces is how much working cultures could be defined by the way the building (and the wider environs) are shaping up. The thought that has gone into the teaching spaces, the design and centrality of inter-disciplinary spaces, the community-focussed spaces and possible activities, the value placed on wellbeing & access and the importance of communal space, light and views for both staff and students all permeated the framing of the tour and the conversations within the group. While debates rage in the wider world about the various pros and cons of working from home and returning to offices, I couldn’t help thinking: ‘This place would pull me in of a morning”.

A trip up in the goods lift (some might say appropriately enough) saw us to our first stop on the 7th floor and the communal space. The light from the windows coming in on the left in the picture below will be supplemented by the central pool of light from the glass-not-glass roof in the central section which will supply light within the whole building. It was shame this was still covered as it will likely change the look and feel incredibly. The glass panes in the widows are designed in such a way as to prevent the summer sauna/ winter freezer effect of other buildings many of us are familiar with.

A large space with high ceilings and pillars still clearly unders construction but with a wall of wiondows just about visible

7th Floor staff communal space- the wall of windows sit in the void at the top of the building that can be seen in the image above

On the 6th floor we walked through shared lab spaces and looked at some teaching rooms. Space and light define the lab, office and communal spaces while the classrooms pull light from the ‘core’.

View from window of part of the olympic park- the canal, greenery, buildings and the construction of the London CVollege of Fashion

View from a shared lab (I think!)

Escalators as yet still being fitted lead from second to fourth floor

Escalators that will take staff and students from the ground to the second floor. Another set will enable swift movement from 2nd to 4th.

As I understood it, along with stairs there are lifts (and toilets) in each corner of the building but swift access to the student communal spaces and library are facilitated by the floor skipping escalator system.  One thing I very much liked was the ‘picture window’ below. Apparently, this is designed in such a way that it can be opened as a bridge to other builds as and when they are completed.

Picture windows with view blocked by building works

Picture window at far end of the library and study spaces

We saw standard classrooms, a sort of ‘executive’ conference venue and audio-visual creator spaces as well as spaces for film that had some colleagues drooling! We didn’t see the object-based learning spaces or the in-situ ‘museum’ space but, as a former history teacher, knowing these will be a feature of a planned, authentic pedagogic approach is very exciting. The large lecture hall with seating designed for whole and small group activity will I hope contribute towards shifts away from over use of the uni-directional, ‘classic’ lecturing style.

A lecture hall space that is still being built. No seating yet in this large, wide space. The exposed pipe work and scaffolding make it hard to visualise what the space will look like.

Large lecture hall

As we worked our way down the building we eventually arrived at the main hall. This will have public spaces, commissioned art work and will double as a gallery space. I wondered as we went round how the spaces will settle on the names that become common. No doubt the architects and the UCL East staff will strongly influence things but I wonder if the things like the often-heard ‘the Mez’ will be well-established or if, as staff and students arrive, new names will emerge.

View of the entrance hall of Marshgate building on the ground floor showing concrete pillars and a huge open space

Entrance hall (currently being fitted with underfloor heating)

We rounded our visit off with a walk around the Olympic park, the cultural district of which is being branded as the ‘East Bank’ . The morning was completed with lunch in the sun with colleagues at ‘The Breakfast Club’ in ‘Here East’ which I only recently discovered has been a UCL presence in Stratford for some time. Maybe it was the sun, the lunch and/ or spending more relaxed time with colleagues but I came away feeling very positive about UCL East. The possibilities are definitely there.

Sharing rationales and managing expectations

On the one hand we hear a lot of talk about co-creation, dialogue and partnership with students in HE. On the other we witness the (in many ways the completely understandable) persistence of uni-directional, risk-averse and more conservative approaches to teaching, learning and assessment. In academic development and digital education it is not uncommon for us to hear something on the lines of ‘I tried X, students hated it so I reverted as swiftly as possible to the tried and tested‘.  The myth of academic autonomy and marketisation of education along with both actual and perceived expectations of students contribute to stifling drives to innovate. Too often when we do change things up a bit we miss a simple way of managing these expectations consequent of the current drivers: rationalising our approaches. In this short video my colleague, Dr Alex Standen, says why she thinks this is fundamental.



Can ‘ungrading’ change the way students engage with feedback and learning?

Dr Eva Mol; Dr Martin Compton- summary of paper presented at UCL Education conference 6th April 2022

‘Ungrading’ is a broad term for approaches that seek to minimise the centrality of grades in feedback and assessment. The goal is to enable students to focus on feedback purely as a developmental tool and to subvert the hegemony and potentially destructive power of grades. Fundamentally, ungrading is, at one end of the scale, completely stopping the process of adding grades to student work. A less radical change might be to shift from graded systems to far fewer gradations such as pass/ not yet passed (so called ‘minimal grading’). You don’t fatten the pig by weighing it

In addition to the summary offered in this post we began with the definition above and encouraged colleagues to consider critiques of the existing grading-dominated zeitgeist in terms of reliability, validity and  fairness. Grades become a proxy for learning in the minds of both students and lecturers and huge distractions away from the potentials of feedback and genuine dialogue about the work rather than the percentage or grade letter appended to it.

Grades can dampen existing intrinsic motivation… enhance fear of failure, reduce interest, decrease enjoyment in class work, increase anxiety, hamper performance on follow-up tasks, stimulate avoidance of challenging and heighten competitiveness (Schinske & Tanner, 2014)

We summarised the range of possibilities for those interested from simply talking about threats and potential detrimental effects of grades (as well as perceived benefits) through to wholesale, systemic change.

  • Scepticism/ discussion/ dialogue
  • Piloting no grades on small or low stakes work
  • ‘Conceal’ grades in feedback
  • Discussed (even negotiated) grades after engagement with feedback
  • Designing out grading
  • Students collaborate on criteria
  • Grade only for final summatives
  • Minimal grading (e.g. Pass/ fail)
  • Remove grades for early modules or years
  • Students self-grade
  • All students graded ‘A’
  • Institutional level – no grade policies

One of my ungrading experiences (Eva Mol)

These are based on teaching I did at Brown University (Providence Rhode Island), with a classroom of graduate and undergraduate students from archaeology and philosophy. I decided to give them all an A (highest mark possible) before the class started.

What did I learn about students?

  • Initially it was a shock to get students out of the system of marks! For most it is really their only mode of thinking about progress and learning, they wondered why take a course if there was no mark (which I think is very disconcerting).
  • However, this shifted quickly from shock to viewing the class as a few hours of relief from the system, followed by less anxiety, more experimentation, and students thinking freely and critically both about the system, as well as what they wanted to achieve in a course.
  • Much more engagement with the content of the course material and weekly readings
  • Discussions were more lively as there was less performance anxiety, students were more personal as well.
  • They set their own personal goals for the class, and I as instructor helped them achieve it. These were a variety of things: speaking at a conference, writing a blog, writing an article. At the end, they realised they got much more out of a course than they ever could with just a mark.

What did I learn as a teacher?

  • It is not less work! I still had to read what my students wrote, correspond to emails, give feedback. But it is really different and much more enjoyable work: when not reading in the context of how writing scores against a grading scale, you can allow yourself to appreciate what students accomplished in their writing.
  • Comments on feedback were much more rewarding because it was not to justify the mark for the administration, but how you can help students improve, and because there is no mark involved, students read feedback.
  • It made me a more engaged instructor, more flexible, creative, and more relaxed.
  • Because I could be flexible, I was much better equipped to deal with building in equity and inclusion.
  • It also forced me to critically reflect on the relationship between grading and teaching, contextualize how we have normalized the artificial frame of numerical feedback, and look for alternatives aimed at my personal pedagogy.

I felt empowered to question all aspects of the folklore. Why am I assigning a research paper even though it’s always a disappointment? Why do I care whether students use MLA formatting correctly down to the last parenthesis and comma? (I don’t.) Why should I worry about first-year writing as a course meant to prepare students for the rest of college? Why can’t I have autonomy over what I think students should experience? (Warner 2020, 215).

Now is the time

The pandemic showed that we can change, if necessary, perhaps now is the right time to reflect on the system. We have an opportunity to shift the way students feel about their own learning and move away from more traditional words associated with grading.

The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy. (bell hooks 1994)


References and more about ungrading

bell hooks (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, New York: Routledge.

Blum, S. and A. Kohn (eds.), (2020). Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead). West Virginia University Press.

Blum, S. (2019). Why Don’t Anthropologists Care about Learning (or Education or School)? An Immodest Proposal for an Integrative Anthropology of Learning Whose Time Has Finally Come. American Anthropologist 121(3): 641–54.

Eyler, J. R. (2018). How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.

Inoue, A.B. (2019). Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. Fort Collins, CO: WAC Clearinghouse and University Press of Colorado.

Rust, C. (2007), Towards a scholarship of assessment, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 32:2, 229-237

Sackstein, S. (2015). Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School. Cleveland, OH: Times 10 Publications

Schinske, J., and K. Tanner (2014). Teaching more by grading less (or differently). CBE – LIfe Sciences Education 13, (2), 159-166

Stommel J., (2017), Why I don’t Grade.

Warner, J., (2020). Wile E. Coyote, the Hero of Ungrading, in S. Blum, Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead). West Virginia University Press, 204-218

Wormeli, R. (2018). Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessment and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom. 2nd ed. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Team Based Learning revisited

I have been forced to confront a prejudice this week and I’m very glad I have because I have significantly changed my perspective on Team Based Learning (TBL) as a result. When I cook I rarely use a recipe: rough amounts and a ‘bit of this; bit of that’ get me results that wouldn’t win Bake Off but they do the job.  I’m a bit anti-authority I suppose and I might, on occasion, be seen as contrary given a tendency to take devil’s advocate positions.  As a teacher educator, and unlike many of my colleagues over the years, I tend to advocate a more flexible approach to planning, am most certainly not a stickler for detailed lesson plans and maintain a sceptisicm (that I think is healthy) about the affordances of learning outcomes and predictably aligned teaching. I think this is why I was put off TBL when I first read about it. Call something TBL and most people would imagine something loose, active, collaborative and dialogic. But TBL purists (and maybe this was another reason I was resistant) would holler: ‘Hang on! TBL is a clearly delineated thing! It has a clear structure and process and language of its own.’ However, after attending a very meta-level session run by my colleague, Dr Pete Fitch, this week I was embarrassed to realise how thoroughly I’d misunderstood its potential flexibility and adaptability as well as the potentials of different aspects I might be sceptical of in other contexts.

Established as a pedagogic approach in medical education in the US in the 1970s, it is now used widely across medical education globally as well as in many other disciplinary areas. In essence, it provides a seemingly rigid structure to a flipped approach that typically looks like this:

  • Individual pre-work – reading, videos etc.
  • Individual readiness assurance test (IRAT) – in class multi-choice text
  • Team readiness assurance teast (TRAT) – same questions, discussed and agreed- points awarded according to how few errors are made getting to correct response
  • Discussion and clarification (and challenge)- opportunities to argue, contest, seek clarification from tutor
  • Application- opportunity to take core knowledge and apply it
  • Peer evaluation

This video offers a really clear summary of the stages:

Aside from the rigid structure, my original resistance was rooted in the knowledge-focussed tests and how this would mean sessions started with silent, individual work. However, having been through the process myself (always a good idea before mud slinging!), I realised that this stage could achieve a number of goals as well as the ostensible self-check on understanding. It provides a framing point for students to measure understanding of materials read; it offers-completely anonymously- even to the tutor, an opportunity to guage understanding within a group; it provides an ipsative opportunity to measure progress week by week and acts additionally as a motivator to actually engage with the pre-session work (increasingly so as the learning culture is established). It turns a typically high stakes, high anxiety activity (individual test) into a much lower stakes one and provides a platform from which intial arguments can start at the TRAT stage. A further advantage therefore could be that it helps students formatively with their understanding of and approaches to multi-choice examinations in those programmes that utilise this summative assessment methodology.  In this session I changed my mind on three questions during the TRAT, two of which I was quietly (perhaps even smugly) confident I’d got right. A key part of the process is the ‘scratch to reveal if correct’ cards which Pete had re-imagined with some clever manipulation of Moodle questions. We discussed the importance of the visceral ‘scratching’ commitment in comparsion to a digital alternative and I do wonder if this is one of those things that will always work better analogue!

The cards are somewhat like those shown in this short video:

To move beyond knowledge development, it is clear the application stage is fundamental. Across all stages it was evident how much effort is needed in the design stage. Writing meaningful, level appropriate multi-choice questions is hard. Level-appropriate, authentic application activities are similarly challenging to design. But the payoffs can be great and, as Pete said in session, the design lasts more than a single iteration. I can see why TBL lends itself so well to medical education but this session did make me wish I was still running my own programme so I could test this formula in a higher ed or digital education context.

An example of how it works in the School of Medicine in Nanyang Technological University can be seen here:

The final (should have been obvious) thing spelt out was that the structure and approach can be manipulated. Despite appearances, TBL does enable a flexible approach. I imagine one-off and routine adaptations according to contextual need are commonplace.  I think if I were to design a TBL curriculum, I’d certainly want to collaborate on its design. This would in itself be a departure for me but preparing quality pre-session materials, writing good questions and working up appropriate application activites are all essential and all benefit from collaboration or, at least, a willing ‘sounding board’ colleague.  I hope to work with Pete on modelling TBL across some of the sessions we offer in Arena and I really need to get my hands on some of those scratch cards!


Using questions in live teaching sessions

The video below is a bitesize summary of a session I was invited to host that came about as a consequence of an earlier post on questioning and a resulting Twitter chat. It’s 4 minutes long. (Transcript of bitesize summary of questioning session).


The slides for the session are here. They have similar questions-about-questions as those in the video:

(To advance slides hover cursor at bottom left of slide screen and use arrows or click on slide once and use keyboard arrows. To copy presentation, first have your Mentimeter account open, then click here to open the presentation in a new tab- you should then have the option to copy to your account on screen)