How do you grade a poem? An excerpt from Meaningful Grading: A Guide for Faculty in the Arts

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Meaningful Grading: A Guide for Faculty in the Arts, by Natasha Haugnes, Hoag Holmgren, and Martin Springborg, was published this summer by WVU Press. Written as a guide for postsecondary arts instructors in all stages of their careers, the book addresses issues of perennial importance in all arts disciplines.

These are the three main questions that drive Meaningful Grading

  • How can faculty in the arts grade student work in ways that improve learning and support artistic  development? 
  • What does effective grading in the arts look like?
  • How can faculty in the arts develop and  improve their teaching and grading over the course of their careers?

The contents are written in tip form, and arranged to mirror the flow of an academic semester, so that information can be located and implemented quickly and easily. Here we share an excerpt from the section “During the Semester.”

Grading and Mistakes

If you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t really trying.

The quotation above is widely attributed to jazz saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, but could have been uttered by almost any artist, anywhere, at any time. Artists must learn to take risks and embrace mistakes. This is one of the few truths that artists can agree on. But in a classroom, it can generate a paradox as grading systems can seem inherently  set up to punish risk and failure. This is not an easy paradox to reconcile. Research into the  importance of risks and mistakes, however, can give us a toehold on establishing a grading system that encourages mistakes and risk-taking.

A description from Paul Virilio’s Art and Fear of contrasting final  projects in a pair of ceramics classes illustrates how focusing students on quality in final product may actually be detrimental to the processes that yield quality. One  group of ceramics students was  told to make the best single piece they could and present it at the end of the semester. The second group was told to make as many pieces as they could over the course of the semester. The most creative work came out of the second group.

No art program wants to graduate students who have portfolios full of mistakes. Students need to edit and refine their work before they show it. But the portfolio work will be stronger if students have made a lot of mistakes along the way. If instructors are constantly grading students on the quality of their final pieces, there is little incentive for a grade-conscious student (or one whose scholarship relies on a strong GPA) to take any risks.

There is an entire course at Pennsylvania State University on taking risks and making mistakes called “Failure 101.” It is taught by Professor Jack V. Matson, who explains the course by saying, “the frequency and intensity of failures is an implicit principle of the  course. Getting into a creative mind-set involves a lot of trial and error.” Few of us probably have the opportunity to create such a course, but we can glean some ideas from his approach.

Consider the following ways, including some from Failure 101, to incorporate an assessment of students’ abilities to take risks and embrace mistakes:

  • For a final or other high-stakes project, instead of one piece, have students create and finish several. Allow them to choose the one that will be graded on quality, but have a portion of the final grade reflect the mere completion of the other pieces.
  • Issue each student a “spectacular fail” ticket that they can use to waive a grade on one assignment for which they take a creative risk and are ultimately unsuccessful  by the standard assignment parameters and criteria.  (The spectacular fail ticket should never be used in lieu of work that is missing or simply weak.)
  • Create a graded assignment like Professor Matson’s favorite in his Failure 101 course: construct a résumé based on things that didn’t work out and find the meaning and influences these have had on your choices.
  • Dedicate a class meeting to sharing stories of failure and create a Dia de los Muertos-style altar where students can place remnants of failed projects. This idea was implemented at X (the moonshot company at Alphabet, Google’s parent company) when a manager perceived that many employees “were carrying heavy emotional baggage” due to defunct or failed projects.
  • In the early stage of a project, insist on a number of ideas, including a certain number of “bad ideas.” Issue a grade based on the sheer number of ideas and inclusion of “bad” ones.

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