Failing to fail phenomena

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Clinical competence is the backbone of competence-based dental education. Over time, there has been a paradigm shift towards training students who are capable of independent practice, as opposed to mere academic success.

A mixed method study was undertaken by anonymised email questionnaire to all restorative tutors at the UK Dental School. Demographics and teaching experience were ascertained, along with key questions on the utilisation of online assessment software iDentity. The assessment process for tutors was explored and barriers experienced when grading students were reported.

The questionnaire was sent to all 51 restorative tutors with a response rate of 59% (n=30). Only 3.5% of tutors provided verbal feedback and grading to students in person, with 20.7% only completing iDentity gradings following an email reminder. The majority of staff (93.3%) felt comfortable in raising concerns, however, one in three clinical tutors admitted they had allowed a failing student to a pass. Qualitative analysis demonstrated several themes why tutors were reluctant to fail students: maintaining good relationships, limited supervision, time delay of grading, one-off event and the student’s first attempt.

Grading students as competent as a one-off experience could potentially mask a recurring problem with a student, in turn impacting of the student’s ability to assess their own weakness and believe themselves to be competent, and potentially be overconfident. Fair and accurate assessment has a significant benefit to student and staff, enabling targeted development to motivate students and improve the quality of care provided to the patients.


  • competence-based assessment
  • dental education
  • dental training
  • longitudinal assessment


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