Competency Grading in Fine Arts at UNSW: A Case Study

By Dr Rebecca Shanahan, Faculty of Arts, Design & Architecture, UNSW Sydney 

Published 25 June 2024

How introducing a satisfactory grading model supports productive risk-taking, aids equity across a cohort, helps students’ mental health and encourages their self-evaluation. 

Students drawing on canvas in a Studio Art Practice class
Students in a Studio Art Practice class
Many UNSW academics may not have yet encountered competency and mastery grading, often colloquially known as pass/fail grading, but a new pilot could change that.

You will have read recently in the UNSW Education News of the opportunity for convenors to participate in this fully-supported pilot to trial converting their own courses to competency or mastery grading. I’m part of the Working Group associated with this pilot, and my personal experience with teaching and convening a course using a competency grading model suggests that for many students, it removes several barriers to achievement. 

I convene and teach an introductory-level course in the Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) program called Studio Art Practice 1 (SAP1), the first of six core studio art courses within the program. Since its introduction as part of a revised BFA course structure a few years ago, Studio Art Practice 1 has used competency grading. In Term 1 2024, 115 enrolled students were attending one four-hour class per week, taught by tutors in a dedicated art studio. Classes consisted of weekly themed lectures with related studio activities, exercises, and tasks. Delivered within a framework aligned to contemporary art theories and practices, students in these courses develop creative artworks in a range of mediums and submit these for assessment along with process documentation.

Since the revision, rather than receiving the familiar Pass, Credit, Distinction, and High Distinction grades, students in SAP1 (and also in the second Stage 1 course, Studio Art Practice 2) receive Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory grades, where Satisfactory is equivalent to at least 50%. To successfully pass tasks, students need to demonstrate Satisfactory standards against at least two of the three task criteria. To pass the course, they must receive Satisfactory grades for two of the three tasks. 

Our experience has shown that for this course and this cohort, this competency model offers students multiple benefits. Above all, the model encourages curiosity, experimentation, and risk-taking: key attributes for creative thinkers and makers in any field.

With no penalty for trying something new and failing, students can stretch themselves past what they know and believe to enter the realm of what they don’t yet know or understand. When our students enter university, they encounter new ways of thinking and creating. Pass/fail not only allows them to test and trial these new ideas, materials, and methodologies, it allows them to incorporate failure as a productive learning strategy. Pass/fail grading thus goes to the heart of what the university experience should be: a supportive and enriching place for encountering, testing, and achieving mastery of the new.

Feedback from students about competency grading has been universally positive, as recent MyExperience comments show: “I think the best things were the freedom to try new things and experiment/experience failure without the actual fear of failing the course.” “…the pass/fail marking system made me feel relaxed to be able to try new things”. 

We have observed that the pass/fail mode aids in flattening out both socioeconomic advantage and disadvantage, making students’ early university experience less predicated on their high school learning ethos and resourcing. Students who excelled at well-resourced schools in a high-pressure environment report experiencing less anxiety and stress, as they are not constantly trying to grade themselves and meet their perfectionist expectations. Conversely, pass/fail grades don’t penalise students whose high schools could not provide specialist art educators or facilities and who may otherwise feel anxious that they are starting at a disadvantage compared with their cohort.

One question that often comes up when discussing pass/fail is whether student standards fall: "surely when there’s no promise of a high grade, students won’t try hard?"

Our experience has been that this isn’t the case. With an engaged cohort committed to their studies, removing traditional grades has tended instead to reduce intra-cohort competition and support greater cooperation. Another comment from recent MyExperience feedback supports this: “Our class developed a really close–knit bond through practicing crits and providing each other with feedback.” This greater sense of community elevates everyone’s achievement, since we know that community connection fosters wellbeing.

How has competency grading changed the way we teach in SAP1? Since summative feedback is less detailed in the pass/fail system that SAP1 now uses, students benefit from more formative feedback. This is indeed consistent with my field’s pedagogy, with its focus on iteration and process as a key part of art practice, but has been made more explicit with the change of the grading approach. Work-in-progress reviews for the cohort are also helpful, so students can compare their relative performance with their peers and evaluate standards for themselves. 

For both tutors and students in SAP 1, competency grading has brought welcome change. Classes are delivered in an atmosphere of collaborative teaching and learning for its own sake, with a marked reduction in students’ anxiety about their progress and time spent in finicky overthinking of mark allocation. The sense of ‘permission to explore’ supports a classroom culture of more open enquiry, greater curiosity about possibilities, and students taking increased ownership of their own achievement. With marking more straightforward and a little faster, the very task of marking feels easier, too.  

If you’re in the ‘hmm, I’m interested but need more information’ group of readers, you can find out more, as well as express interest in participating in the pilot, here. You can use the same link if you already have experience with this model and would like to provide feedback. 



Reading this on a mobile? Scroll down to learn about the author.

See also

"Teaching students to value education rather than marks: Competency and mastery grading at UNSW"

By #UNSWNexus Fellows, Prof. Liz Angstmann, A/Prof. Helen Gibbon and Dr Ben Phipps 

"Who benefits from grading first year" 

By UNSW Nexus and Scientia Education Academy Fellow, Prof. Liz Angstmann


Enjoyed this article? Share it with your network!