Grading Rubric for Studio Art Visual Thesis

In the University of Cincinnati’s School of Art, Fine Arts majors are required to spend their entire senior year working on their thesis projects. These projects consist of two parts: the written thesis and the visual thesis. )For information on the rubric for the written thesis, click this link.)

The Senior Thesis Seminar course is set up to provide guidance and support for the seniors as they actualize their projects. This course has three learning outcomes, one of which is directly related to the visual work they are doing:

“Students will demonstrate substantial professional accomplishment in a coherent body of artwork through exhibition in DAAPWorks.” (Ed. The title of the senior end-of-year show.)

Here is the rubric that is used by faculty to grade the visual thesis projects. There are six major categories that faculty want to evaluate, and this rubric makes clear that they are not all weighted equally. The standards of excellence for each category are well-defined, although it should be noted that tweaking is done to the wording every year, depending on who is teaching the course.


Grading Rubric for Studio Art Written Thesis

Many studio art programs require not only a visual thesis of artwork, but also a written thesis that accompanies the visual work. Given that the students are writing about their creative process and research methodologies, this kind of written document can be challenging to grade for professors.

Here is a rubric that is used by faculty in the School of Art at the University of Cincinnati to grade the written thesis papers of their studio art seniors. Please note that they chose to focus the grading process on three main areas: Content, Sources and Mechanics. These items cover everything that faculty want to see in the document, and enabled them to keep the rubric relatively simple.

This rubric also ties in directly to one of the three learning outcomes for the course, specifically:

“Students will demonstrate their ability to research and articulate their visual thesis project and its connections to art history, to contemporary art, and the cultural milieu through verbal and written critical discourse.”

This rubric enables faculty to see very clearly which students are achieving that  outcome and which aren’t.

For information about the rubric for the visual part of the thesis, click on this link.

Learning Outcomes vs. Goals/Objectives

Is there a difference between the terms “learning outcomes”, “goals”, and “objectives”?

Well, yes.

In reality, these terms are often used interchangeably by educators. We all know what we are talking about when we use these terms, whether we are talking about them in terms of an individual class or an entire departmental curriculum. Although the differences between “goals” and “objectives” are relatively slight, there is in fact an important difference between those terms and “learning outcomes”:

A “goal” is the general result or achievement toward which effort is directed. It implies that you might not get there, as these are only the results you intend to get. (ex. “To gain an understanding of basic composition principals.”)

An “objective” is the specific result or achievement toward which effort is directed. Like “goals”, it also implies that you might not get there, as these are only the results you intend to get. (ex. “To  become familiar with the principals of line, shape, form, contrast, and color in artwork.”)

An “outcome”, on the other hand, is something that follows from an action. It states that you will get there and that there will be evidence of learning that took place. It also outlines the means by which students will achieve the learning. (ex. “Students will demonstrate effective use of the compositional principals of artwork, both graphic and aesthetic, in the creation of a studio project and/or a written research project.”

An “outcome” will also make evident what exactly will be assessed. This is why creating a learning outcome can be so helpful when figuring out what to grade and how to grade it. A well-written learning outcome for a course or a project will initiate the seamless “threading” process that leads a teacher from the outcome to the assignment to the critique to the grading of the work produced.

Please note that both “goals” and “objectives” are usually written with the passive voice. “Outcomes”, on the other hand, are written in the active voice. This difference is clear in the above examples. Verbs like “interpret”, “identify”, “present”, “design”, “analyze”, “apply”, “illustrate”, “explain”, “demonstrate”, and “create” are all very useful when creating a learning outcome statement.

For more information on this subject, the University of Connecticut has published an excellent Assessment Primer that covers these differences in depth.

Sample Grading Rubric

Let’s say you have a basic understanding of the value of specific criteria for grading and now need to create a grading rubric that you will fill out and hand back to students. There are many different formats you can use for creating rubrics.

Here is one example that I’ve used for an Introduction to Photography class. This is used to grade the final project of the semester, and, as such, covers both technical expertise as well as aesthetic issues.

Class Participation- What Exactly IS That?

We all know that “class participation” ranks high on the list of criteria for grading in art and design classes. What is astonishing is how many teachers simply state either in their syllabi or rubrics that “class participation” will count towards a grade, without explaining what they mean by that.

What most of them mean, unfortunately, is that they want/expect the students to speak up in class. And that’s it.

But where does that leave the “quiet student”? You know, the ones who rarely say anything, but who are clearly engaged in the class despite the fact that they don’t speak up. Grading “class participation” solely on whether someone has said something in class is very short-sighted, and can in fact be counter-productive because it encourages students who are talkative in the first place and intimidates those who are less verbal.

Broadening the definition of what constitutes “class participation” can get around this problem and be a fairer assessment of a student’s true engagement with the class. Here are some suggestions for what might be included in that broader definition:

• Volunteer during class.

• Do in-class exercises.

• Have in your possession the proper materials & equipment necessary to satisfactorily complete the work.

• Show initiative throughout the duration of the course.

• Be in class on time and prepared.

• Ask questions and comment on the subjects being discussed in class, both verbally and in writing,

• Participate in field trips.

• Do all homework as required.

Those points would provide a teacher with a far truer picture of a student’s actual participation in a class. So why not list them either on a syllabus or in a rubric to let students know that you value all those things and that they will be rewarded for exhibiting them?

Examples of Studio Art Grading Criteria

Using criteria that are vague and thus essentially useless is a hallmark of the grading of studio art. It leads teachers (and students) to think that it’s impossible to grade something that is inherently subjective. But it doesn’t have to be that way!

Here are some examples of grading criteria that are very often found in studio art courses and how they can be made more specific and useful. Note how vague the “Less Effective” criteria are, when compared to the “Better” criteria.

1. Less Effective: Creativity

Better: Student uses her/his materials in a way that seeks to reveal or discover the nature of the subject at hand.

2. Less Effective: Time spent on the project (or: Effort)

Better: Work shows a clear improvement in technical quality over the course of the project.

3. Less Effective: Participates in class and critiques

Better: Student participates by coming to class and critiques on time and prepared, by asking questions and commenting being discussed both verbally and in writing, by completing homework as required, by helping to maintain the classroom workspace without being asked.

4. Less Effective: Craftsmanship

Better: The work shows careful attention to craft both in the application of technique as well as in the state of the paper/fabric the work was made with/on. (No torn or frayed edges, no smudges, etc.)

5. Less Effective: Strength of Idea

Better: The work shows evidence of intentionally exploring and developing a topic.

How Evaluation Can Aid Student Learning

Assuming that specific criteria are used when grading, then evaluating student work can:

• Encourage a link between course goals and assignments.

• Become a part of the motivational structure of the classroom

• Encourage a professional attitude towards learning.

• Provide diagnostic information to both teacher and students, by clarifying exactly what the student is or is not being rewarded for

• Reduce the number of questions students might have about where their grades came from

• Be a low-hostility approach to discussions about grades, and can enhance/guide dialogue among students and faculty about their work.

Conversely, NOT using specific criteria for evaluation can prevent some, if not all, of the above from happening.