B plus or A minus? Assessment in the creative disciplines

I attended ‘B plus or A minus? Assessment in the creative disciplines’, part of a programme of events being run by the University of the Arts London last week. The venue, Central St Martin’s (CSM) new Granary Wharfe, is a remarkable conversion and I recommend a visit if you get the chance. It has retained the character of its historic brick warehouses whilst creating open non-formal spaces that appear to be highly versatile in how they support performances, exhibitions and other student-led activities.

However, my purpose was to listen to academics from the creative arts talking about assessment and my personal interest in this was to understand learning and teaching culture and practice in the context of studio-based disciplines. I am going to highlight three takeaway points from the event: the process book, ipsative assessment, currencies beyond the mark (or valuing learning).

The process book as a locus of assessment


A student’s process book

In the afternoon we had a session in which students were invited to work with table groups, along with their tutor, to talk about their experience of assessment. The design student who joined my table brought his process book. In the image above you can see the book – a softbound ‘publication’ of approximately 250 pages. Inside are high quality reproductions representing all of the tasks he had been assigned – not just the finished work, but the assignment briefing and key annotated images representing each stage of his ‘workings’. While creative arts students have always used sketchbooks to capture and develop ideas, and portfolio cases for storing and carrying finished work, I was struck by the process book which had a different role and one which I think has application to other disciplines in which process and its analysis matters.

First, the book was very professional, being a high quality printed and bound edition. Initially I didn’t understand it – it looked like it was a course book that explained the tasks he was expected to do, but I soon realised that it was actually his own work. I asked where he had had it made, and he said he had made it himself. I thought perhaps he had used a service like Lulu, but presumably they have a book production service at CSM.

What captured my attention was the tactile nature of the evidence of his thinking process for each of the small tasks he had worked through. The book concretised what can otherwise be quite an abstract process. The book brought together and made real the thinking and making processes. Clearly this is important in art and design where so much attention can be given to finished works and exhibitions despite the importance of art making in becoming an artist. These disciplines rightly celebrate failure as a valuable part of learning and process books can capture this or present dead end experiments that have long term significance.

So, I need to find out more and then I need to bring what I find into my own thinking on studio-for-all.

Ipsative Assessment

It was good to meet Gwyneth Hughes from the London Institute of Education and hear her talk about ipsative assessment. Ipsative assessment, a term that has been in use since the 1940s, is when you assess students based on their learning improvement. Students are motivated by the challenge of attaining their personal bests, as she said, ‘Like a Fitbit.’
She made the point that process in learning can easily get lost to the product as noted above. She says ipsative assessment can help to address this because it is non-competitive and considers the progress, or learning gain, made by individual students. It undermines cultures that are driven by the almighty mark and allows a student and their tutor to establish and value their own goals. It seems apt for studio-based disciplines in which an individual will often commit to the pursuit of a circuitous personal learning goal through the execution of a series of works. It makes little sense, within practice, to see assessment as a competitive or normative process and, on graduation, professional practice is often an individualised matter where the only real world assessment is the the world’s response to your ways of thinking and the work that results from this.
Again, my interest here is about studio-for-all and what ipsative assessment may offer other disciplines.

Gwyneth Hughes edited ‘Ipsative Assessment and Personal Learning Gain: Exploring International Case Studies’ in 2017 published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Other currencies

I was pleased to attend an event and not be leading it, presenting at it, or even contributing to the discussions beyond those at the table breakouts. That is very unusual for me to say the least! I wanted to listen to others.

Because I am currently immersed in some work involving the redesign of learning outcomes statements and the shift from summative assessment cultures to formative, I was tempted on a number of occasions to intervene and give my two penneth on ‘other currencies’. It seems to me that higher education may have lost the plot, becoming acceptant of the dominance of summative assessment cultures in which we accept that students will not engage unless they are awarded marks for doing so. I’ll try to keep this brief and save the fuller rant for another day, but the implication is that many academics have accepted teaching and learning as an extrinsic transaction in which teaching has to squeeze in as much stuff as possible with the pretence that ‘it will be in the exam’ – otherwise students just will not engage. I find that so disappointing and it anchors teaching to the delivery content rather than the experience of learning. I often assume that it not like this in the creative arts. I had the privilege of a studio-based education which, for me, was intrinsically motivating due to the inherently personal, social and self-determined nature of studio-based study. I tend to believe that studio-based learning enjoys higher ideals than many other areas. I admit my bias, but nevertheless also observe an inherent otherness and critique when I am working with studio disciplines. I was dismayed, therefore, to discover that, according to many of the discussions on the day that these days art students need marks in order to engage as much as any other student. To give the academics their due, most seemed to be as dismayed as me with many of us sharing fond memories of pursuing ideas back in the day that only made sense to us as we ploughed our respective furrows! (That sounds like a worthwhile education to me by the way!).

Connecting this to my work on emphasising the value of formative assessment, it occurs to me that we need to develop a clearer conceptualisation of parallel currencies. Yes, ‘the mark’ is part and parcel of today’s higher education and, whoever we are, we need marks to help us reflect on and communicate our achievement with others and marking ensures that our tutors pay close attention to our progress in the age of mass education. However, I am frequently asked, “How do I engage my students in formative assessment?” The short answer which I tend not to use is to be a good teacher (and understand that teaching is perhaps the most important contribution you can make to your students i.e. being ‘expert’ and ‘knowing stuff’ is relatively inconsequential if you don’t know how to teach each and everyone of your students).

The longer answer is to understand the art and science of learner engagement. In the context of this post, this comes to having ‘other currencies’. We need to think through how we communicate the value of engaging in learning to our students. Employability is one currency, but personally I think this often corrupted because, again, many people seem to have a very shallow understanding of it, e.g. the reaction that ’employability modules’ are used to deal with ‘the problem’ of needing to include employability in the curriculum. Again, a rant for another day.

So, what other currencies do I mean? For me, the next obvious one is the currency of authenticity and situated learning. Keeping this brief, these ideas allow the academic and their students to begin by exploring the meaning of knowledge. This itself introduces the students to a more philosophical take on their education. The currency should be established at level 4 and become the learning environment or primary discourse for everything they do. By establishing such a context for learning a student can learn to self-direct and negotiate their learning.

In summary

The event got me thinking evidently. Some of what I encountered was new and some came into sharper focus. Some helped me to make connections between ideas. So thank you UAL for organising the event and opening it up at no cost. Much appreciated.


About amiddlet50

Educational developer working in academic innovation in higher education in the UK
This entry was posted in Assessment & Feedback, learning space, studio-based learning and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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