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.

Self-Assessment = Getting them to Think about their work

There is a lot of chatter in the education community about Self-Assessment. In feeling somewhat dissatisfied that my rubrics are often more useful to me than to my students, I decided this fall to institute more consistent self-assessment into assignments. This assessment has taken two forms – the most obvious is actually giving them the rubric and asking them to complete it and turn it in with the project (the hope here is that this will provoke them to actually read the rubric!). The second is providing them with a series of questions about their work. The goal for me with self-assessment is that they think through what they are doing, rather than waiting for a longed for, but often mysterious grade from me. In the past I have asked them to write a self-evaluation with their projects, building up to an overall statement by the end of the semester. My new approach is giving them self-assessment questions tailored to the assignments.

It’s nearing the end of the semester and what has come of this new approach? Some students have been diligent in their responses, some slackers, just as I imagined. The real bonus has been getting a fix on whether they actually understand the assignments – they may be doing it right, but are they connecting the dots? Ultimately, their self-assessments have been more valuable all along the way than the end of semester course evaluations that at my school at least, are an agony of filling in bubbles and navigating obtuse data. If I ask a student “Which aperture gave you consistently shallow depth of field?” not only am I getting them to think about the result (rather than just look at it), I am also getting a sense as to whether they understand what they have done. It’s helping me to see on an assignment-to-assignment basis whether I am an effective teacher. How carefully or thoughtfully they respond, helps me to also understand whether my students are diligent learners. An obvious lesson is that those who skip the assessment are often the most problematic learners. A corollary bonus is that I get a sense of my student’s expectations. By offering them the opportunity to score their own rubric then match it to mine, room opens up for a conversation about those expectations.

Self-assessment takes time and for me is always a work in progress. I highly recommend incorporating it into assignment delivery and course expectations.

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?

The Evolution of a Grading Rubric

When I first started teaching, I used a rubric similar to the ones that my own teachers had used. That can be found here. But as time went on, I became increasingly dissatisfied with it. I felt like I didn’t really know what I meant by “imagination” or “clarity of communication”. And if I didn’t know what I meant, how could students possibly know?!

After attending a few teaching workshops, I radically revised the rubric I was using. The revised version can be found here. I used this kind of rubric for a number of years, but again became dissatisfied, so tried a new layout and changed some of the criteria wording. The most recent version can be found here. In reviewing all three documents, one can see that each rubric became more specific about what I am looking for in a quarter-long project, and thus clearer about what is expected.

I post my rubrics on Blackboard at the start of each quarter and tell my students: “If you want to know how to get an A in this class, just read the grading rubric for each project to see what is expected.” Being more specific about my expectations has led to fewer after-hours discussions about grades, a definite plus!

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.