When I was in college I had an honors class professor explain that we were not honor students because we were smarter than everyone else, but because we were the kind of students who had figured out what teachers wanted of us and understood how to give them just that. Today I recognize that what made the statement true is that the majority of assessment models that students experience are instructor or administrator defined and regulated – A certain set of core criteria are identified and a student is expected to exhibit a degree of that criteria in order to obtain a certain assessment value.
But in a studio classroom environment where the act of making art can be such a personal process, where experimentation and individual expression is encouraged, and where work can be open to interpretation, this circumscribed approach to assessment has always felt contrary to that process.
I was once helping a friend grade his elementary class drawings by following the rubric he’d created for the assignment. The assignment asked students to create landscapes using specific analogous color schemes, and the rubric looked for whether or not students had done that. So when faced with examples of students who had not “followed the instructions” – maybe because they used colors that weren’t analogous, or maybe their “landscapes” become more imaginative – I chose to grade according to the criteria of the rubric (despite my personal feelings of how wonderfully inventive and unique they were). As a result I had a rather large number of 3rd graders who had “failed” the assignment – needless to say I was quickly taken off the task.
I’ll admit, I did so to illustrate the ways that restrictive criteria missed opportunities that allow students to be unique and creative in approaching their work. I recognize that not all parameters of a project or assignment can be thrown out the window. The goal, after all, is to have students learn from a task and not just do anything they want. However, I believe there are approaches that can allow for both those things to happen.
Consider this example: When I was in highschool I had a sculpture class where we were learning to sculpt with plaster and were tasked with creating portrait busts. I was super excited about the project because I loved working with the human form and immediately had this vision of painting the bust to mimic the universe and wanted to incorporate these wire structures that would allow me to add planetary elements that extended from the main form. However, the project – and what we would be graded on – specifically required us to sculpt a head, paint it black, and use gold paint to create a faux metal-cast effect, which is what I was directed to do after I presented my personal concept.
Being the kind of student that I was, I understood that in order to get an A I had to do exactly what was expected of me – and so I did what I was told. But after the work was handed in, graded, and handed back, I took it home and made the piece that I’d wanted to make all along. Doing so allowed me to have a wonderful “I told you so” moment with my teacher when he was blown away by the work I brought back. Today it is an experience that I keep close at hand to remind me of the kind of personal vision I want to encourage in my students, and it has helped me develop programs and assessment tools to support that kind of learning.
My sculpture, for example, could have still been evaluated on my ability to successfully work with plaster, the ability to accurately render a human head, and my ability to paint a faux effect without having needed to conform to the parameters of the project. Beyond that, there was a missed opportunity to invite me, as the student, to discuss the personal set of goals around my vision for the project and to teach me how to self-evaluate my level of success in accomplishing that vision.
In my experience, most assessment models evaluate a standard core of expectations that, in my opinion, generally fail to demonstrate individual student growth. Most assessment models I have observed speak to whether or not (or to what degree) a student demonstrates learning a specific and standard set of knowledge or skills (or worse still, whether or not they were able to follow directions). What this method fails to do is speak to what the student managed to learn or do as an individual.
In any class, students come in with varying degrees of understanding of material or subject matter – so it seems counterproductive to hold everyone up to the same level of success. In a portrait drawing class, for instance, if you primarily measure success by how accurate a student is able to render the face by the end of the class then you do not take into account that some students may have come into the class already having known how to do that. Other students may also not be able to obtain that level of skill within the timeframe of the course. However, that does not mean they still did not achieve and demonstrate an individual level of growth. And in my opinion and experience, not recognizing that can terribly impact a student’s sense of self-worth and accomplishment.
It is because of these experiences that I have found that creating criteria with the students in mind, and even with their collaboration, have been the most effective in a studio classroom environment. There are two ways that I have taken this approach in my classes.
Create student-determined criteria with students by establishing personal goals
In my observational drawing classes I start the first day of class by having students create a drawing prior to any instruction on my part. Whether we will be focusing on still-lives, figure drawings, or landscapes, the idea is for the student to establish a base in their skill level and understanding of that artform. From there I have students consider what personal goals they may have – this usually take the form of a survey sheet that asks questions like, what drew you to this class? What is something you’d like to accomplish by the end of the course? I will always have my own set of goals of what I would like students to know be able and do, but I balance that against their individual goals and what I believe they can accomplish by the end of the class based on the skills they are coming in with.
During the course of the program I make sure to check in with them constantly about their progress. For instance, if they have established that a goal of theirs is to improve on their ability to draw proportionally then I make sure that we constantly check in on and speak to their progress on this goal.
At a few points throughout the program I also have students return to the site/object/pose of their first drawing and have them draw it again. During our last class session I pull these drawings (along with a piece either I or they identify as their most successful piece of the course). Because the subject matter is exactly the same, it is really easy to identify the specific areas where students demonstrated growth. I have not determined what the criteria for success was, but the work itself illuminates where the students personally succeeded in developing and improving their skill.
I have found this model not only eliminates the need for students to achieve a level of success that I as the teacher have determined, but understanding how to identify and value their own growth also helps in dissuading students from gauging their success based on how well other (more experienced) students have done. Furthermore, it provides the opportunity for the student to talk about where they have seen an improvement and the areas they will continue to focus and improve on beyond our class.
Creating student-generated criteria through collaboration
In DIY: The Sketchbook Project students were commissioned to create three sketchbooks for Marwen. We wanted students to gain the experience of being freelance artists tasked with developing a product, so we explained that they would only be paid for products that were determined to be of “good quality.”
It would have been acceptable to have a set of criteria set in place determined by me, or Marwen as the client, to establish what a “good quality” book looked like. However, I did not want to be seen as the authority of what “good” was. Having students learn to evaluate that for themselves is an important part of learning to be a freelance artist. It felt necessary to give students autonomy to establish their confidence for this project not only as students but as commissioned artists.
In general, as teaching artists are seen as the “authority” because we are the bearers of knowledge. Often times assessment is approached through this same lense- “I know what success looks like therefore I will determine if you’ve achieved it”. Instead, I argue we should see ourselves as the “bestowers” of knowledge, and along with arming students with the knowledge of how to do a thing we should be arming them with the knowledge of how to evaluate, for themselves, the level at which they successful.
As such, for the DIY class, instead of saying this is what a “good” or a “bad” book looks like, what I first did was simply to teach them how to make a book. Through the process students were able to experience for themselves, and from each other, what it looked like to do things correctly. After presenting them with the knowledge I have, they experienced what effectively creates a bound book. I then asked them, as a group, to create criteria for what a “good” and a “bad” book looked like. Without me establishing the standard based on what I know, students used the knowledge they’d just gained to define what a good quality book looks like. As a result students were not trying to create work that adhered to criteria I’d set for them, but they were avoiding the same mistakes that they themselves had experienced and had established as leading to poor quality products.
To further remove myself as the “authority” figure I also made worksheets of all the binding processes we had covered, thereby eliminating the need for them to come to me at any point and ask, “Am I doing this right?”. Instead, I became a sounding board for their ideas and a mentor for those moments when they didn’t know quite how to execute their vision. Most importantly, providing students with autonomy and authority over their own success created a real sense of ownership and pride in their learning and in their work – which were crucial in a program where we were asking students to be freelance artists creating products for a client. This was not an assignment they were making as students but it was work that they were creating artists. They wanted to do a good job not because I asked them to or told them how to, but because they wanted to and because they knew how to get there. And in the end the students went beyond my expectations and really put in the effort to create amazing books.
When I think about what course or project criteria should be measuring I wonder whether students leave my classroom feeling like they accomplished what I asked them to do, or if they leave feeling accomplished by what they have learned and achieved. I believe we can’t truly create effective assessment criteria for students without considering who the students are. And nobody understand better about what a student’s needs, goals, and abilities are then the students themselves. That is why I think it is only to the benefit of everyone to involve them students in the development of the criteria that you and they can evaluate their work against.
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.