Sunday, 6 June 2010

Marks and Angles

I'm no fan of grades and I begrudge having to apply them to the work of students because the attention they command is completely disproportionate to the detail (or rather the lack of it) that they provide. I wonder if anyone really believes that grades serve anything but the most rudimentary purpose. If, instead of viewing assessment and feedback as two distinct things, we thought of them both as part of a single continuum then I think we'd have a much clearer picture of how they function. If detailed feedback is the most fine-grained and valuable form of evaluation which we can offer a student then grades are probably one of the most impoverished ways of feeding back about their achievements. The only thing which provides less information than a grade is simply to attribute a pass or fail to submitted work. Indeed, we could create a bandwidth hierarchy which demonstrates this relationship:

Of course, most universities, and the courses which comprise them, almost always provide some form of feedback in addition to grades. However, at the pinnacle of every single student's achievement at university, the final point of recognition and the culmination of years of application, engagement and endeavour are summed up in a single grade with no further feedback whatsoever. What does this actually say about what universities really believe in or what they think their students should aspire towards? No wonder students seem overly fixated on grades.

How much better would it be if we radically changed our angle on assessment. Instead of spending days discussing, debating and occasionally arguing over the minutiae and comparative strengths and weaknesses of students' final submission portfolios/exhibitions in order to come up with such blunt instruments as grades, perhaps our time would be better spent in writing detailed analytical feedback which the students could take away with them and from which future employers could derive a far more detailed and useful picture of the students' applicability for employment (it might even save us writing so many references in future). I don't doubt that universities would see this as being an unacceptably “high risk” approach in that it would leave them accountable in a way that marks simply don't. But should we be denying students quality feedback simply because universities haven't got the bottle to really stand by their professed principles? What we really need in universities is a revolution in the understanding and application of assessment.


Fraser said...

Hi Jim,

The right time of year for such thoughts, although I have to admit this year I have heard less from the students about Grades than any other - not really sure what that means.

I completely agree with what it is you are saying and I believe grades are the antithesis of the ethos and teaching employed in art school, Throughout college the core of teaching is discussion, through studio crits, tutorials, seminars and the general day-to-day processes of making work, which is also the at the core of art itself, which is there, in my opinion, to provoke discussion. Given how important feedback is to the artist then the idea of those four years worth of discussion, that feedback which can at times be crushing, that emotional journey we have coursed through, to be rewarded with something as meaningless and prescriptive as a number is hardly the prize worthy of that toil.

I really found it strange that there was no feedback given on the Degree Show, I was given an envelope with a number in it, but never found out why I was given a that number or what it meant. But worse than that I never knew what tutors thought about my work, what its strengths and weaknesses were, what I could improve on, even a wee bit of advise on how to deal with being an artist, or whether they thought it would be a good idea if I did...

The numbers assigned to us for making it through the honours year don't even appear to have any real correlation with their purpose and application in the real world. Many people I know who got First class honours no longer make art, aren't interested, while others who got Third Class degrees are very successful. The grades themselves make as much sense as the answer to the Life, Universe and Everything, which itself, of course, is a number.

Anonymous said...

Your post bought to mind this excerpt from the book 'Lanark' by Alasdair Gray- you've no doubt read it.

"Examinations" cried Thaw "it's all examinations! Must everything we do satisfy someone else before it is worthwhile? Is everything we do because we enjoy it selfish and useless? Primary school, secondary school, university, they've got the first twenty four years of our lives numbered off for us and to get into the year above we've to pass an exam. Everything is done to please the examiner, never for fun. The one pleasure they allow is anticipation: 'Things will be better after the exam.' It's a lie. Things are never better after the exam. you'd think love was something different. Oh, no. it has to be studied, practised, learnt, and you can get it wrong."

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi Scott - actually I haven't read Lanark - though I will now!

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi again Scott:

"How can men recognize their real enemies when their family, schools and work teach them to struggle with each other and to believe law and decency come from the teachers?"
"My son won't be taught that," said Lanark firmly.
"You have a son?"
"Not yet."

-Alasdair Gray, Lanark (P.411)

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