Secretly, many people believe it's impossible to grade art assignments. I see it in students' faces and I hear it in party conversations. "Isn't it all just subjective?" someone asks. You've probably had the same thought, even if you hold art teachers in the highest regard. You may like us, but in your heart of hearts, many of you either suspect we're just making this stuff up, or you don't know how to defend us to cynics and critics.
Can I help?
Grading art isn't subjective, it's qualitative. Instead of tallying the number of answers you get right, an art teacher assesses the qualities of the work, such as your choice of subject, handling of media, and control of the composition. That means, incidentally, that it's harder to grade art than a spelling test, an arithmetic quiz, or a multiple choice history exam. In general, it's hard to grade any assignment where the answers don't fit neatly on a computer card.
Grading art is a way to give students constructive feedback on their learning and practice, and to be reasonably consistent about the standards we ask each student to meet.
This sort of grading relies on specialist knowledge, which is the major reason it looks so mysterious to a novice or outsider. Think about a dog show. Anyone with a weigh scale could judge a World's Heaviest Dog contest. It takes a veteran to assess how well a Jack Russell terrier conforms to the subtle specifications of the standards for the breed.I've seen two Jack Russells, in person, in my life. I can distinguish them from dachshunds and St. Bernards, but not from each other or from beagles. How many Jack Russells does a judge see before she can reliably recognize the ideal proportions, coat and character at a glance?
We could have this same conversation about playing Pachelbel's Canon, editing a short film, or dancing the Argentine Tango. However, I teach visual art, so let's narrow it down to drawings. How many drawings does a civilian see in everyday life? Dozens, perhaps? No wonder they think it's hard to evaluate drawings. They don't have much basis for comparison. In contrast, I have seen thousands and thousands of drawings, and I'm not that hard-core. In one gallery exhibition I might see a hundred drawings in an afternoon. In one course this semester I'll see twenty five students submit ten assignments each and draw in-class at least ten times--that's five hundred drawings.
I need a broad, deep basis for comparison when I'm evaluating drawings. It also helps that, on most assignments, I have a classroom full of examples illustrating how other students have interpreted the exercise and what other students are capable of delivering with the same instructions, materials and time.
Noteworthy: A sticky-note exercise I sometimes use in class
First, I pin all the assigned drawings up on the wall and hand out sticky notes to all the students. Then I ask them to look over the drawings and follow these instructions:
- Find a couple of drawings where you think the student did a great job of solving the challenges of the assignment, handling the materials, demonstrating technique, controlling the composition, and making work that holds its own as art without reference to the assignment. Put a yellow sticky note beside those drawings.
- Do you see a couple of drawings you think almost hit that standard, but stumbled on one or two points? Put a pink sticky note beside those drawings.
- Are there some drawings that you think managed to fulfill the requirements of the assignment but there's nothing especially eye-catching, interesting, or unexpected about them to hold your attention? Put a green sticky note beside those drawings.
- Your tags will have no impact on my grading of the assignment, and I am not asking you to identify any of your classmates' work as poor.
Can you imagine that: twenty or thirty drawings on the wall, all based on the same instructions? The students look them over and assign sticky notes to a handful each of them considers outstanding. What happens? I'll tell you what doesn't happen. The sticky notes are not scattered evenly across all the drawings. They cluster clearly around certain drawings, and they cluster roughly by colour. The students agree pretty well on which drawings are "note-worthy".
Are you surprised by that? Perhaps not. It turns out that we expect some drawings to be better than others and we can generally agree on which those drawings are. My job when grading art assignments is to be a little more nuanced than yellow/pink/green, and to use a consistent standard across the class, calibrated to the norms of the department. That's how you grade art assignments.
I know most readers aren't expecting to grade art assignments this weekend but thinking about how to grade art assignments can improve your own work. Artists evaluate art all the time. The most important thing they do is assess their own art, especially while they're making it.
The moral of the story: The first way to improve your art is to evaluate it. Think carefully about its strengths and weaknesses. What draws you in? Where do you look first, and next? What does it remind you of? What are you hoping nobody else notices?
A corollary: The second way to improve your art is to look at a lot of art.
A caveat: Criticism and creativity each need their own space. Don't fall into the trap of assessing your work too harshly or too often. You need creative time and critique time, and it's usually a bad idea to mix the two. Being self-conscious is as destructive as being uncritical. Like so many things, it's a question of balance.
Another caveat: Wing nuts teach, too. I'm sure there's an art teacher out there who really does mark capriciously, an acting teacher who plays favourites in casting, a dance teacher who gives everyone "A for effort." Learn what you can from them in other capacities. Most of us work hard to assign meaningful grades you can use to improve your own work and creative practice.