Friday, 6 January 2012

Expert Criteria

If we accept that we each apply subtly different (and sometimes radically different) criteria to the decisions that we make and to the production of our work then does it make sense to require students to comply with a one-size-fits-all set of criteria?

In 1989 artists and Turner Prize nominees Jane and Louise Wilson (sometimes known as "the Wilson twins") graduated from their respective BA courses in fine art: Louise from Dundee and Jane from Newcastle. For their degree exhibitions they decided to collaborate and to submit exactly the same work for assessment.

Unless I am mistaken, the two identical shows received unequal marks: one a 1st class honours degree, the other a 2:1 (2nd class upper). The twin who received a 2:1 subsequently appealed and her mark was raised also to a 1st class honours degree. We might be tempted to assume that the initial disparity in marking was due to either a lack of professionalism or thoroughness - which amounts to the same thing - on the part of one of the institutions awarding the marks. But there is another interpretation which we might make: each institution was employing different criteria.

All courses have criteria by which they mark student work but, in the Humanities at least, these criteria often differ quite significantly between different institutions. Thankfully this distinctiveness has not yet been overridden by a singular set of criteria to be applied to all work across all institutions. Such a move would surely make a mockery of education, even if it were to have the desired result of creating greater parity in assessment. Nonetheless, the disparity between different institutions in terms of the way that work is marked, ie: how certain outcomes are weighted and how certain activities are prioritized, may offer an insight into what we are actually evaluating when we assess student work.

During assessments it might be thought that we make evaluations based on the stated assessment criteria? We certainly strive to. But can we be so sure that these criteria really capture the full extent of our evaluative judgements? In the Humanities as elsewhere, few experts agree about exactly what constitutes the good, the great or even the deplorable, so it is no surprise that most assessment criteria are little more than stripped-down compromised rationalizations of a barely understood, complex and intangible process.

"Indeed, the history of dramatic criticism, including criticism of the plays of Shakespeare, is in great part the history of unresolved disagreement over the necessary and sufficient properties of dramatic greatness. If there are such properties, then, we must nevertheless admit that no one has ever stated satisfactorily what they are.” -Morris Weitz

When we judge a person, in no matter what aspect, is it true to say that we are judging them on the basis of that particular characteristic as an objective fact? Or isn’t it more true to say that we judge them on the basis of our own criteria of what exemplifies that characteristic? In other words, without a clear and precise universal designation of what constitute greatness in any particular form, we are limited by the frailty and capriciousness of our own judgements. Such judgements are based upon experience, experience which furnishes us with conceptual models - exemplars - that we use to compare with other experiences and artifacts. The more wide ranging and sophisticated these models, the more discriminating we become and the more elaborate and extensive become our evaluations.

Much as we may value our own hard earned criteria, it is the criteria that the students apply to their own work that matter, not their compliance with ours. If we want students to make work according to our criteria then, by extension, we wish them to make the work that we would make. What makes far more sense is that students are supported to make the very best work that they can make and in the process become as expert in their deployment of their own criteria as we are with ours. Granted, such criteria take time to develop, but far better that they should be formed through deliberate practice and experience than through conformity and compliance.


Post a Comment