Assessment in the Studio Classroom

For the last year and a half I have been participating in Marwen’s efforts in understanding what assessment looks like at our organization. It has been a very enlightening experience – One that has taken me from cringing at the thought of ‘grading’ our students and their work, to finding that I have learned so much more about the value of assessment than I ever did in my university’s teaching program.

My big ‘ah-ha’ moment came during a professional development workshop with education consultant, Susy Watts, in which she helped me understand that assessment could be a tool to help students assess their own learning, as opposed to a tool for the instructor to evaluate their students.

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Up to that point I had been creating surveys and exit slips that asked the students to reflect on their daily and overall class experiences. The idea being that through reflection I could chart the student’s progress and growth through the course. I came to understand, however, that the tools I was using were primarily assessing the effectiveness of the class, which was useful for me as the instructor, but was not providing any substantive reflection for the students’ sake.

I therefore turned my attention to investigating the ways in which I could use assessment to help my students see and understand what they were accomplishing – and how they could use that knowledge to further develop as artists. And being in a studio classroom environment the tool that has most effectively aided me in accomplishing this has been the sketchbook.

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Sketchbooks are great for housing a variety of assessment tools such as weekly reflections, goal settings, surveys, etc. But the sketchbook can also serve as an assessment tool in itself, and in my courses I have used them as processfolios (another gem gleaned from Susy Watts) that visually track student growth for effective self-reflection.

In my observational drawing classes, prior to any instruction, the first thing I have my students do is create an observational drawing. This drawing allows me to establish what skills the students are coming in with so that we have a baseline that we’ll be working off of. It also helps to create a benchmark from which we can measure their growth later. At the end of the 8 weeks, after students have both studied observational techniques and experimented with more expressive approaches to drawing, I ask them to redraw the same composition; taking into account all that they’ve learned and experienced in the class.

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Having these bookended drawings allows students to concretely see how their skills have grown or become more refined through the course, and helps them identify what aspects they can continue to improve upon. As an instructor, it’s also just great to be able to sit down with them and say, ‘look at how much you’ve progressed!’

In all my courses, my primary goal is also to help students identify their individual artistic fingerprint as a way to support their portfolio development. So in my classes I have them explore a variety of materials and techniques because, in my experience, it is through variety and experimentation that you can begin to identify those constants that exist inherently throughout a student’s work.

I utilize the sketchbook as a place where all these experiments are created, and during week 6, I have the students review what they’ve created – either in their sketchbooks or by creating a “contact sheet” of their work – and ask them to answer three questions: What features/characteristics define my sense of ‘style’? What am I still struggling with/would like to strengthen? What would I like to accomplish by the end of this class?

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Reflecting on the work with these questions in mind helps students identify recurring elements that speak to how they, as individual artists, respond to artistic challenges – This can be specific gestures that they always make, compositions that they keep coming back to, or techniques they implement regardless of medium. Having an understanding of what they do, allows us to have a conversation about how to develop personal works that utilize those elements more intentionally, and how that investigation can lead to the development of a portfolio or body of work.

At the same time, having students self-assess their growth and challenges is also a great way to have them self-direct how they are going to spend the final sessions of class. As a result,  I also understand what they would like to  accomplish so that I know how to best support them. In the past it has also proven to be a useful tool with students who may not have been as productive. When being presented with their work as a whole they become aware of what the extent of their participation has been, and challenges them to think about what they would like to accomplish.

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Ultimately, the sketchbook can act as a framing device that can help students reflect on and assess their growth in the class. Using sketchbooks has allowed me the opportunity to have more effective conversations with my students because together we can physically point to individual examples to help answer questions about what they do and what they’d like to do, as well as what they’ve learned and what they’d still like to learn.

Christian Ortiz About Christian Ortiz
Christian Ortiz has been a part of Marwen since 2001, first as a student, then teaching assistant, teaching artist, and now staff member. As an artist and educator, process, research, and discussion are a major component of both his studio practice and classroom environment - Practices which he uses as he helps Marwen develop curriculum and programming around students' artistic development. You can learn more about his classroom and studio experiences on his blog christianortizart.blogspot.com.

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