Grading Creative Work

Because I teach theatre in an academic environment, at least twice a year I am faced with the problem of grading creative work. Some would question the efficacy of grades in an arts course at all. This is why many prefer to teach workshops, or non-academic arts courses where grades don’t exist. The teacher, or leader, or facilitator does a critique of the work, sometimes involving others, sometimes not, and that is all. No grades are assigned. It is likely that there is no permanent record of the evaluation of the work done. In some of these workshop situations, there is no evaluation at all; rather the leader offers guidance and suggestions about where to take the work and what explorations the artist might make.

So why do grades? Well, the academic system requires it. We must evaluate and record our students’ accomplishments and failures. It turns out, that although they may say otherwise, students require it as well (see below).

Unfortunately, unless one has developed an immensely sophisticated method of grading, those letters or numbers reflect only what was done on a particular assignment on a particular day. And while that may correspond with reality, the likelihood is very rare. No matter how hard we try, most grading systems do not take into account growth and development; nor can they fully represent real quality of the process involved to produce the work. And sometimes, because of work not done, the final grade bears no relation at all to the student’s ability to create artistically.

My undergraduate acting professor developed a way to get around these problems and keep his administration happy. At the beginning of the course, he offered the class a choice between the traditional five-letter grading system and the B/F system. If one did the work and made an honest attempt, no matter how ill or how well, one would make a B. If one did not, one would fail; there were no A, C, or D grades. Unanimity was required for implementation of the B/F system, and my class chose it without hesitation. The pressure to “make a grade” was instantly removed. And the system did not prevent those who wanted to do A work from doing so; it did, however, force them to seek excellence for itself, and not for some end-of-term reward. It was a great system so far as I was concerned. There was never any doubt about the quality of work that we were actually doing because of the critiques and guidance, but none of us were worried about grades.

Because I had such appreciation for the freedom that the B/F system offered, for the first several years that I taught acting, I offered the same choice to my classes. All rejected it, sometimes by huge margins.

And perhaps they were right; perhaps the B/F system belongs to a different, more idealistic world. The fact of the matter is that once the artist is working, whatever art he/she makes will be evaluated, sometimes not too kindly. So not evaluating creative work seems, to me, a disservice to the student. The student needs to know what others, particularly those who have training and experience in the field, think of his/her work. This is not to suggest that the student necessarily modify his/her work to satisfy the public. Rather it is to prepare the student for the kind of reception his/her work might garner in the arts marketplace; that is necessary survival intelligence and information that many students need. Some of the students who walk into my acting class having been told for years that they are great, only to discover in the crucible of the college classroom that they have been misled. Some may not have the talent they thought they had; some believe that because they have talent, work is not necessary; some have an inflated perception of the talent they do have. Others, because of insecurity and other issues, consistently underestimate their skills.

So, for any of a number of reasons, students in the arts must be evaluated. And in academia, these evaluations must be distilled into letter grades. It is better that these students go ahead and learn that constant evaluation is part of the working artist’s life. That whether it is from a critic, a peer, or the public, everyone who sees their work will have an opinion, and in some cases, those opinions can turn into jobs or commissions or not.

Date: Sunday, 18. May 2014 18:40
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Creativity, Education

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    Hi Jay, Thank you for posting your thoughts on this. I am currently researching ways that other professors have graded creative projects. I teach applied music and have given grades to my students based on a fairly detailed syllabus incorporating a minimum of subjective factors (20%) and a majority of objective factors (80%). I’ll be teaching a new course in the fall (Yoga and the Creative Arts: Philosophy and Practice) in which a major component of the grade is a creative project and critique. I’ll be requiring journals entries and blog posts but was wondering if you had any ideas you might be willing to share on the breakdown of how you grade progress as well as “product.” I know this might require a more time intensive response, so if you don’t have time, I completely understand. If you do have a way of sharing or can point me to some references you’ve found helpful, I would be incredibly appreciative. Again, thanks for you thoughts.

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