Friday, 17 September 2010

Blowing the Whistle on Theory and Practice

It’s possible that I’m wrong, but I strongly suspect that we have a injustice (or perhaps it would be less inflammatory to describe it as an inconsistency) at work in the way that Art students are being assessed at universities in the UK. I realise that this is a significant claim with potentially serious ramifications so I offer this as an observation and discussion to be further examined, explained and hopefully resolved or proven to be unfounded.

All Fine Art degree courses employ an assessment process which evaluates each student’s final degree exhibition as well as their portfolio of coursework produced during their final year of study. In most cases the assessed material consists of a public exhibition as well as a portfolio submission of supporting work (sketchbooks, notebooks, drawings, supplementary images, maquettes etc). All such courses also assess an academic component in the form of an essay, dissertation, thesis, critical evaluation, or other form of written submission and this forms a fixed portion of the overall mark (usually between 12% and 25%).

Due to the specific nature of fine art courses, the differing staffing levels involved and the demands of assessing text in comparison with visual material, it has become established practice to assess this written component differently to the studio work. Inevitably these assessments have to utilise certain assessment methods which, in contrast to studio assessment, take comparatively little account of the preparatory work produced in order to arrive at the final submission. In other words, the assessment of this component doesn’t do what the practical “studio” component does: it doesn’t assess the process and the evidence of this process to the same degree. This privileging of ends over means; of outcome over endeavour is patently at odds with the approach to assessment involving studio work and sometimes leaves students with significant amounts of material unconsidered, unacknowledged and un-assessed. If we marked studio work in the same manner we’d simply assess the exhibition and nothing besides, and the marks that students received at the end of their course would often be significantly different: sometimes better, sometimes worse.

So what’s going on in this irregular approach to assessment and why is this important aspect of the student’s work not being sufficiently recognised? I would argue that this derives from longstanding differences of opinion - prejudices even - about what constitutes assessable material and in particular a privileging of academic practices over practical. In academic circles generally, essays are rarely, if ever, assessed in terms of the process that leads to them. Essays are seen as the culmination of the student’s endeavour and it is often believed that this is sufficient to provide a complete picture of the student’s achievement. In Fine Art, as I have described, we have a more process oriented approach to the assessment of studio work and it would be claimed that this is due to the practical nature of this discipline. But is this distinction between theory and practice really a fair and justified one?

Whether in practice or theory, the relationships between engagement, inspiration and outcome are remarkably similar. We all know that someone can work for years, pouring energy, research, thought and skill into their work only to arrive at a mediocre result, whilst someone else might produce something astonishing and truly insightful with only the barest application. Creativity, originality, innovation, insight and inspiration cannot be scripted, much as we might wish them to be. The landscape of discovery is notoriously treacherous with many complex and unfamiliar obstacles and few, if any, guarantees of success.

In academia, the formal organisation, structure and presentation of essays is carefully supported (usually) and administered in order to ensure that as much of the process is captured and incorporated into the final piece as possible. Bibliographies, references, footnotes etc are intended to give a comprehensive indication of the material gathered and assimilated in order to produce an essay, but do we really believe that this represents a foolproof method of demonstrating what has really been read and understood let alone conceptualised and applied? From all appearances it would certainly seem so. However, we could just as easily contend that a degree exhibition is the culmination of all that preceded it. However, few art school teachers would seriously assert this, because they’ve come to recognise the importance of examining the journey, not just the destination.


Lau Sheow Tong said...

A very insightful reflection !

Tamsin said...

I wonder how much of this is an effect of art education moving into universities (what happened before?). Presumably when art diplomas became degrees, there were all sorts of assumptions about what would make something had had previously been seen as 'crafty' into a kosher degree (and we're very keen on kosher in academia...). I would imagine that much the same kind of thing happened to teaching and nursing, though the 'craft' aspect is obviously different in each case.

Your point about process is such an important one. My understanding is that some people have tried to address this in other fields by bringing in things such as formative assessment but a)I'm not sure that's quite what you're arguing and b)in the currently stretched circumstances of higher education this is likely to be problematic in a number of different ways (available marking time for the teacher, student attitudes to different forms of assessment when working as well as studying etc).

For me, your questions about assessment point towards my own questions about the problem of institutionalising learning. I guess this isn't a problem if you want to go to university to learn how to do academic research - but is that what most students actually want?

J. Hamlyn said...

Precisely - it has everything to do with prevailing ideas (orthodoxies) about what constitutes assessable knowledge products and proof of knowledge acquisition (and to some degree skill) rather than a more expansive recognition of how practice and process (admittedly within certain discursive or cognitively engaged forms - which are perhaps, as yet, poorly understood and under-researched) can be a formidable form of knowledge formation, communication and discourse.

You’re right also about “formative assessment”. I swithered over mentioning it in my post because it’s certainly relevant but somehow I don’t think it goes far enough (though it’s definitely a step in the right direction). The problem is the word “assessment” (unsurprisingly!). If it were “formative feedback”, “cumulative feedback” or “ongoing feedback” instead, I think it might come closer to what’s really needed. Ideally feedback, if it’s of sufficient quality, clarity and regularity should make assessment irrelevant, because the student will know exactly how they’re doing. It’s true though that this kind of thing comes at a premium in the “currently stretched circumstances of higher education”.

Tamsin said...

That's a very interesting idea about feedback rather than assessment. I used to work with teachers in the FE sector, and both they, and colleagues in universities, seem to increasingly be talking about 'students not being motivated to do any work that isn't assessed/doesn't count towards their final grade'. This is said as an exasperated complaint, subtly suggesting that the student is at fault. At yet surely it's the bigger social, institutional and interactional context which produces such behaviour in students. We must somehow be setting up our contexts and courses in such a way that the real message they receive (as opposed to the espoused message, which is often about 'learning for the sake of learning' etc - still a genuine value for many teachers but arguably quite out of synch with what is happening socially and culturally)is that the only thing that counts is the assessment.

One thing perhaps that contributes to this message is an apparent disconnect between what is discussed in lectures and seminars and what is assessed. I say apparent, because most lecturers have done their best to make the assessment relate to the teaching - but the rub seems to be that this connection is so often lost on the students... Something is badly wrong. I don't know about teaching art, but in other areas of higher education, I would argue that there is evidence that we don't 'teach what we test', which would be seen as an elementary crime in regular teacher training.

For example, in my field, Education, we're often still assessing the student's capacity to formulate a clear question, link this to literature, develop an argument looking at evidence on both sides etc etc - but who ever actually teaches students the way that this is done? The old culture of universities says that this is what is 'higher' about higher education - that they are supposed to work out how to do it on their own. Anything else is spoonfeeding etc. But this makes no sense to me at all. I think academics forget that it actually took them years and years of apprenticeship to learn to do what now seems to them to be so obvious....

Schrodinger's human said...

I recently had someone in the educational system tell me that they themselves had received a '1st' in their final university assessment due to their cunning understanding in doing exactly what they considered the institution wanted to see in order to grant them such a grade; no enthusiasm was shown over what they had learned along the way in order to get to that stage, just that they had gained the accredited standard of merit, and I was left disheartened by their outlook on education and to see they were proud to have successfully cheated the system so to speak, when from where I was standing the only person they had fooled was themselves in not embracing the true rewards of the learning process.

I believe that the process of learning and gaining as much as possible from the experience in itself is every bit as important, if not more so than 'final' outcome; which is simply a mere landmark in the learning curve of life itself. It is at once both refreshing and reassuring to read that a genuine academic holds these values in high regards.

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi Schrödinger's human (cool screen name by the way),

Yes, I recognise exactly the attitude you speak of. There's a term used in education theory called “Constructive Alignment” which seeks to create a situation where so-called "Strategic Learners" are given no option but to participate at the deepest level. it's responsible for the emphasis on "learning Outcomes" approach in education. It's a somewhat contested theory and I won't bore you with the details, but it's certainly the case that many academics have perceived an increase in these types of learners in recent times. I'm tempted to agree although, on the other hand, I'm also somewhat sceptical of such sweeping statements which, as Tamsin says, suggest "that the student is at fault". The truth is that I don't really know, and I certainly don't feel that the people I teach differ in any significant way from the people I was at college with 25 years ago. However, there does appear to be a greater emphasis, within contemporary culture, upon forms of extrinsic motivation, in other words, types of motivation which seek external recognition and rewards rather than, as you say, “embracing the true rewards of the learning process”. In fact, I wrote about this in an earlier post entitled "Fall from Grades". The problem, as I see it, derives from an increasing tendency in society to celebrate forms of achievement which are gained without any real exertion or expenditure of effort or skill. There seems to be an acceptance that it's okay - indeed that it's laudable - to cheat the system and to come out on top. If that tends to create more strategic learners then I guess the theory is right, but it's not the students that are at fault but rather the cultural values which encourage these counterproductive tendencies.

There's one possible positive outcome though. I guess, if people feel comfortable about letting on that their great achievement in life is to have cheated the system, at least the rest of us will know them for what they really are. Oh, and the other thing is that intrinsically motivated people are more contented and creative. That, at least, is an objective proven fact.



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