Many art professors avoid grading art altogether. They don’t grade individual projects, favoring mid-course evaluations and a final grade that “feels” right. This is how I was taught myself. Most rely solely on thorough critiques to communicate their impressions and values. I too rely heavily on critiques; however, I find that placing a grade on individual projects is an important teaching tool that works in tandem with critiques beautifully. Student can easily misunderstand their level of success with critiques alone. There is no substitute for a critique clarified by an objective grade to reinforce exactly how appreciated the student’s work is (particularly with freshman and sophomores).
Grading art used to drive me nuts. I labored lining projects out, moving tricky projects back and forth. What do you do with the talented-but-lazy student or the under-trained-student with a great work ethic? On top of that you have more styles and priorities then you can shake a stick at — all based on varying levels of appreciation for history and theory.
I have been experimenting with a system for a number of years that has helped me grade artworks. The idea occurred to me while watching Olympic ice skating scoring. You’ve seen it: they skate and are instantly scored. Judges must start with a perfect score and take off fractions every time they see an offending element (either technically or artistically). The skater falls: minus one point. She lifts her leg unusually gracefully: plus an eighth. In this way the work is broken down into a group of meaningful elements.
In a Greenbergian sense, artworks can also be broken down. However, unlike Greenberg, an absolute value system is not the answer. There is a value system but not one system that all artists and works share. The system is individually re-created by each artist for each work.
For undergraduate student artwork to be properly evaluated, several expectations must be aligned: 1) the level the artist is at (freshman-senior) 2) the artist’s previous training and background and 3) the artist’s goals (what do they want to be doing in 5 years?). These questions provide an expectation framework/context/value system from which to evaluate their artwork. When I’m critiquing a new student, I always ask these questions before I begin.
Teachers must evaluate student works through these lenses, allowing the student’s priorities to establish the value system in which individual elements in their work either buttress or erode. From here, it’s a matter of watching the work skate, taking note of all the elements that take away or reinforce the artworks own system. Grades are natural. Diverse priorities and interests are protected and encouraged.
The lazy talented student is called. The under-trained student with great work ethic is sharpened and rewarded. Critiques and grades become individualized for every member of the class. In other words, the definition of what deserves an A changes from student to student. It seems obvious to me that in any class, all artists are at different places. It is a teacher’s responsibility to take each place seriously. This is initially confusing to students; however, when I talk this out with them I find they appreciate it more than an absolute system. The under-achievers are not left out and the over achievers are properly challenged to see how far and fast they can go.
It is a school’s responsibility to make sure courses contain an appropriate teacher to student ratio (preferably 15:1 to 8:1) so that teachers are best able to accomplish this.