Grading Art

Creating, Learning processes, and Grading?

Process, effort, and participation are good ways for learning to occur. Copying or imitating may make it easy to produce a product, but it probably does reflect learning to think and feel like an actual artist. Working at the art process by thinking like an artist helps students learn to think and develop new skills and abilities, both mental and physical. Learning the art process requires practice in generating and developing ideas. Students learn to make compositional choices. This is when thinking skills, problems solving skills, and dexterity skills are practiced. I think that most educators and parents expect a grade to be based on learning to think and feel on our own. Some may misunderstand and feel that grades should only be based on the end products (on the artwork itself).

Lois Hetland 1 and her coauthors, (2007) Studio Thinking, list eight habits of mind learned in studio art classes. If we agree with these, it makes sense that they should also be the basis of our grading. Their eight habits are: 1) develop craft, 2) engage and persist, 3) envision, 4) express, 5) observe, 6) reflect, 7) search and explore, and 8) understand the art world.

There are many ways in which studio art classes provide unique learning opportunities that are crucial life skills that go way behond the abilities needed by artists.
For me, studio art class is a wonderful messy place where all kinds of wonderful stuff happens.

When we grade art students, we need to tell our students in advance that we are looking ofr the kinds of learning and growth that are unique to art classes. If we fail to tell them, post them, and so on, it will be unfair. They will come with the assumption that art class is graded like every other class. They will assume that the teacher will grade their end product. I have put together a list, but every art teacher will have a special list, and every art teacher has to be honest about how much credit they are actually giving for the the end product (artwork) in their grading. My approach is to use the end product as one kind of evidence of learning.

This is my list of the kind of things I want to see learned in studio art class:

Many of these are not very important in other school subjects. Therefore, as art teachers, it is even more important to recognize our students for doing well in these categories. What is your list?

Mastery of creativity strategies -- If I know that accomplished highly creative individuals have certain traits and strategies, I need to assess my students accordingly, and they need to realize that these traits and thinking strategies may help them become more creative. Are they learning to habitually use creative strategies?

Imaginative ability -- Are my students becoming more imaginative or more dependent on preconceived ideas?

Visualization ability -- Do they sketch things to see how well things will work? Imagination and visualization are very closely related.

Divergent thinking -- In the typical classroom, a lot of problem solving is taught as convergent thinking. There is one answer, and students have to figure out the one right answer. In art and in life, most problems have many alternative solutions. Where and when do our brains get practice in divergent thinking? Studio art class is the ideal place to ask for multiple alternate ways to approach a problem.

Empathy & Relationship abilities -- As we work as artists, we constantly imagine how others will experience out work. If we were wired to a brain scan, empathy neurons would be lighting up. During critique sessions, we learn to phrase our questions in ways that other art students will become more aware while being encouraged and affirmed. Studio art may be one of best places for students to learn empathy.

Helpfulness & Collaborative ability -- Art studio classes offer many opportunities for students to work creatively in teams. In the art world, there is an assumption that creative artists generally are isolated in studios. In some cases this may be, but many artists work in teams and lots of creative tasks and projects in life are too big for one person. Teachers can foster a studio culture that encourages the sharing of ideas in ways where students learn how to ask each other questions in ways that multiply options and alternative solutions and experimental approaches. Some teachers include this in their grading by sharing a collaboration rubric in advance. Like anything that is graded, advance notice is only fair. The rubric might be very formative for students who have not yet learned the various ways in which they can make a contribution and how they might benefit from being in a team.

Passion -- Ken Robinson calls it The Element. He has a whole book of stories about how creative people and how they found their passions.

Experimentation skills -- Are students learning how to design and learn from experiments that respond to questions that come up?

Appreciation for Mistakes -- Do my students fear mistakes or are they beginning to notice that mistakes often show them ideas that they would have never been able to think of on their own.

Discoveries -- Are students making unexpected discoveries as they work and in the work of peers. Do they discover things in works that they have never seen before?

Skepticism and the need to question the status quo. Are students developing the ability to generate positive ideas because they just do not like what they are seeing.

Original ideas -- How original are their ideas?

Technical skills/dexterity

Juggling ability -- Highly creative people have many unfinished tasks. They know that the brain can work on unfinished ideas when they are unaware of it. As they return to tasks, they make new discoveries.

Transfer learning --
Students need to earn credit for using what they learn in one project when they are working on another project. Unless we know how to use things in new contexts, most of what we learn in school is not ever needed in life. Teachers who give credit for transfer of learning are more apt to help students practice it.

Compositional skills -- Whether a work communicates, depends on how things are arranged. Are students discovering and using principles that they learn?

Expressiveness/evocative aesthetic skills -- To what degree to students experiment with unexpected things as they work?

BASIC grading questions

Does the grade reflect current learning? We often use the artwork product when grading, but what if the art product is the result of previous learning much more than learning during the current term.  Often our favorite students may be the ones that already know what most students in our class still need to learn. Is grading fair if rewards work based on previous learning more than work based on current learning?

Copied products can also look much better than original work based on observation, imagination, or on experiences. Assessment based on the product is not always a valid and fair grade. It can discourage learning if it encourages copy work or basing art work on examples rather than learning to do original thinking, composition, observations, interpretations, and so on.

How can grades be based on verified learning? top of page

How can we measure learning so that those who learn the most in this course during this grading period get the best grade for this class? How can we know what is learned during the grading period rather than for what a student already knew. This requires some sort of longitudinal assessment (before and after) during the term of study.

Longitudinal assessment for grading is based on learning during the term (over time).  At the end of the grading period, each student is compared her/his their own beginning level.  Students who progress the most from their starting point are the ones who earn the best grades.  This requires explanation in advance to avoid misunderstanding.  Otherwise, some advanced students might think they can rest on their expertise and get a good grade without learning new things.  Highly capable students should not be rewarded for coasting. 

Advanced students need to be challenged to take on more difficult and challenging versions of assignments. Students with a strong background can also be given a chance to learn more by preparing for and helping with some aspects of the teaching. This could take the form of class presentations about artists whose thinking reflects that of a recent class assignment.

Advanced students can be involved in tutoring where more advanced students are given credit when they can compose and phrase open questions that help less advanced students learn to focus and think better. In addition to raising thinking questions during the creative time, these kind of questions can be added to the feedback students get on their completed assignments. To have students do some tutoring is not exploitation so long as they also have time to develop their own artwork. Having students help with teaching is very wise pedagogy, if we have advanced students who can be coached to be good teachers. As teachers we know how much new material and thinking skills we develop when we teach something even though we thought we knew all about what we are teaching.

Advanced students can also learn to be good team members when a class is organized into teams to do cooperative studio projects such as collage, mosaic, assemblage, mural making, community planning, and so on. Many advanced students as well as highly creative students are particularly challenged to exceed when they are asked to take special responsibilities.

With experience, many teachers get fairly good at intuitive assessments based on casual longitudinal observations. Others use things like sketchbooks, portfolios, journals, digital photo records, and so on to keep longitudinal records for each student. Learning is assessed by comparing before and after skills, before and after ability to develop ideas, before and after composition, and before and after knowledge. Students can even be asked to keep the records for themselves. Students can even be asked to self-report and list what they know about art that they did not know prior to the class. This is a way to foster better thinking habits. Knowing that they are responsible to keep tabs on their own learning, some students actually try harder to practice and try harder to remember what is learned during the course. Good students already know how to do this. That is why they are good students. Learning to habitually think and act artistically is the essence of learning in art. top of page

Longitudinal assessment can include thinking habits, development of art skills, studio work habits, the ability to synthesize, create, and even character traits such as respect for others and ethical development. These are very important in today's world. They are precisely the kinds of learning advocated by Howard Gardner 2 in The Five Minds for the Future 2007. Earlier I already mentioned Hetland (1) and her coauthors along with their list eight habits of mind learned in studio art classes. If we agree with these, it makes sense that they should also be the basis of our grading. The eight habits are: 1) develop craft, 2) engage and persist, 3) envision, 4) express, 5) observe, 6) reflect, 7) search and explore, and 8) understand the art world. Art students can improve (or deteriorate) in any or all of these categories during a studio art course. top of page

Normative assessment for grading is too common and by itself may be unfair. It is based on a comparison of the each individual to standardized goals at the end of the grading period. In some of the literature it is call summative grading. In summative grading we collect achievement and knowledge scores. Summative scores are commonly used to determine if a student is qualified to be promoted to the next grade or graduate. The standard is the same for everybody in the class. It feels unfair to grade on this basis because it may result in failure to properly recognize very competent and hard working beginners who are being compared with others who many have a lot more previous learning. Those with a large amount of prior practice may not be experiencing nearly as much learning as the beginner.

In practice, many teachers use both summative and longitudinal grading. In the elementary and junior high school, I feel that art learning should be assessed longitudinally (on growth and improvement). Normative grading might be gradually introduced for part of the grade in high school art. I believe most university art classes are graded on a normative basis, but the more enlightened instructors give significant credit for those who progress the most from their starting point in the course. Employers may say they want to know who is most qualified so they know who to hire. In reality, if I were hiring an art teacher or another art graduate, I would hire the ones who can learn new things easily and willingly (longitudinal learners) - not simply those that already know the most (highest summative achievement). Strongly self-motivated hard working creative students should be able to get good grades under either system.

Does Classroom behavior enter in the grading?

Some studio behavior is very much connected to studio thinking. To the extent that behaviors are based on a student's studio thinking habits, behavior may be an especially appropriate and valid part of grading.

I know that negative behavior can influence learning for both the offending student(s) and the rest of the class. However, it can be confusing and even counter-productive to make negative behavior part of the learning grade. Speaking as a parent and as teacher, we might consider reporting on negative behavior separately from learning? When our children were students the report card had a separate place for comments on behavior. Just knowing that this is on the report card helps some students throttle their own behavior.

Should Grades be Formative as well as Normative?

Traditionally, formative assessment refers to the use of assessment to help the teachers make informed changes in the curriculum. Of course there are aspects of grading can be used to change what we teach and how we teach, but that is another essay.

I am using the term "formative' a bit differently to refer to grading. Too often grades are simply experienced as joy or sadness. Formative evaluation helps students understand new options to consider? I think good grading practice can help even the A+ students learn and know what to learn next and how to learn. In this sense grading informs students and is helping the students form or construct knowledge.

We know students do not all respond to grades the same way. Many teachers feel that grades are an important motivational factor. Most teachers feel that good grades can motivate students to work harder. Both good and bad grades can sometimes get good results. Bad grades can occasionally shock students to work harder. There are even times when students who start working harder actually start to enjoy the learning. Too often a bad grade just seems to frustrate students and they give up. To be able to say that grades are formative, we have to include useful information with the grade.

We are all different, but when I was a student I worked harder in courses that I enjoyed. Good grades helped my enjoyment of it. However, sometimes students who get good grades are noticeably underachieving. Formative assessment can help students at all levels construct knowledge while they are being assessed. If we can write a note that points out classroom behavior, would it also be useful to write a note specifying why and/or how the learning grade was determined along with some guidelines about how the student could achieve a better grade? top of page

Photographer, Diane Arbus 3, said that her art teachers always told her that her artwork was great (assessment). She went on to say that she hated these compliments. It made me think of how often I had made an empty undefined compliment to a strong student. Might we see assessment and grading as a chance to teach? Might it be a time to reinforce knowledge, look for meaning, and form attitudes. A letter grade without any explanation can be an empty compliment or an empty criticism. Often our most capable students are also bored because our class is not challenging. This happens if we fail to ask them challenging questions that could help them invent harder assignments for themselves.

How could these vacant teachable moments be filled? I believe good critiques and rubrics are more important than the grades. Critiques are often occasions to make discoveries. Sometimes the students who create the work are not aware enough of how their work is seen by others that they totally miss the discoveries unless we take the time to conduct the critique. If rubrics and critiques are not used, should we consider at least an explanatory comment with the grade?

See: Critique to Foster Artistic Creativity (positive collaborative discovery)

One of the teachers I worked with as a student teacher tried to keep examples of particularly good student artwork to show to his students the next time he used the assignment on the theory that good work is made by standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before. I have come to partially disagree with what he did because too many of the students used the example instead of learning how to think of their own ideas. However, I partially agree with what he did. I would agree with showing this work after the assignment is finished with a review of what was well done and why it worked well as a way of sharing additional information and review. top of page

In my opinion a perfect time to discuss a really great example from the art world would be after the assignment. While this is not part of assessment, it might come very soon after assessment and the assessment might help students form a frame of reference for understanding the . This use of art history reviews the assignment, it informs the students about the amazing possibilities of human practice and dedication. It gives them a chance to speculate about the thinking behind great artworks. It helps them understand more possibilities beyond those they had tried, but doing this after their creative work is a safeguard against robbing them of the chance to practice authentic creative thinking and ideas generation themselves.

USING a TEST result to help students learn to do well on a test
Sometimes in my teaching I have been disappointed that students have problems writing an explanatory essay on an exam. I never know for sure if they failed to learn the relevant material or whether they are just particularly bad at explanatory writing. When this happens, I select an exemplar essay from a very strong student who has written well and ask her permission to make a photocopy of her essay. I give it to the whole class so that they can see a correct answer that is also very well written. What better time to learn how to express something than when you have just attempted it and failed. top of page

How can tests be used to grade art?
Most art grades are based on art work, but art learning can also be based to some extent on test results. There are various kinds of tests. Most tests only attempt to assess the knowledge of specific facts. Even this simple kind of test can be used in pre-testing and post-testing to get a partial reading of longitudinal learning. On pretests I have often asked students to describe artwork of the most famous woman artist they know about. This is a valid item to tell me something about the student's background and familiarity with the art world. It is not a question that assess thinking style or creative thinking ability.

Art teachers (and other teachers) can also write tests that can assess thinking, creativity, degrees of divergence, imagination, originality, choice making, and problem solving. We know from studies of highly creative people that they can think fluently (list many solutions) and flexibly (list unexpected solutions). For example, a test item for divergence and creativity might ask an art student to make a list of subject matter ideas for a painting about her/his own life. Studio art can teach this kind of thinking. The test item indicates that the list will be scored with one point for each item up to 10 items, but it will give 5 points (up to a total of 25 points) for each item on the list that nobody else in the class has on their list, and 2 points for every item (up to a total of 10 points) that only one other person in the class lists. This kind of test item fits art world expectations. In the art world, ideas make a greater contribution when they go beyond the cloning of other artists' ideas.

Students may tell you that they do not like tests in art. Well written tests can help in grading concrete factual art learning and they can also help assess improvements in the types of thinking that art students need to practice. Teachers will need to decide if tests are worthwhile.

Is grading worth the time and effort in art?

Assessment of learning can help determine the effectiveness of an alternative teaching method.  It can be worthwhile for doing classroom research to learn how to be a better teacher.  Otherwise, if I had a choice, I would favor good critiques and rubrics to give student feedback and encouragement, but I would not worry about grading in art.  I would rather spend the effort on more intrinsic motivation. top of page

The critique as assessment.
If a teacher has found positive critique techniques, products can help us learn how to see things that were overlooked during the creation and problem solving phases. Critiques can also help us find out what the student is learning. These can be great ways to teach, learn, and even assess learning---depending on how the critique is conducted. Little of the actual learning can be proved by looking at a product unless it compared to a similar product that the same student did earlier. It may not be fair to give credit in an art course for something that was learned two years earlier.

Being Fair
Teachers should not give grades. Students are encouraged to earn them. If you read this essay on grading and make grading changes, be sure changes are explained to the class soon enough so students know how to earn a good grade and do not feel betrayed.

I had a college math instructor and a college writing instructor who graded me differently than they had promised in the beginning. The math teacher said the grade would be based on the final exam and other work (or lack thereof) would not count against us. The writing teacher said the grade would be determined by the main writing assignment and the final exam would not count against us. In both cases I "played the system" and felt I had earned an above average grade, but was given an average grade. It is not a happy memory about these two teachers who both went back on their verbal contracts and decided to change the rules as they determined course grades. We need to be ready to make improvements in our systems if we make mistakes and as we get better ideas, but we need to be fair to our students when we do this.

References top of page

1 Hetland, Lois; Winner, Ellen; Veenema, Shirley; Sheridan, Kimberly. Studio Thinking: The real benefits of visual arts education. © 2007 - Teacher College Press, Columbia, NY

2 Gardner, Howard. The Five Minds for the Future © 2007 - Harvard Business School Press, Cambridge.

3 I heard Arbus make the comment about how she felt when her teachers told her how good she was in a video produced from tapes made while Arbus' was teaching photography. Diane Arbus was a famous New York photographer of unusual people. We lost her in mid-life by suicide. We cannot say that anything her teachers said influenced her mental health. However, I do think that what art teachers say can be formative of their thinking about what constitutes art.

Related Links

For more on art critiques in assessment

See: Critique to Foster Artistic Creativity (positive collaborative discovery)

For more on using rubrics in art assessment

For ideas about tests for creativity in art classes

A list of traits of highly creative people

Other pages about teaching art by this author

Author home page. This page shows the author's artwork and has links to many more art teaching pages

Author biography.

Goshen College Art Department


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Updated 2-26-2011, Marvin Bartel, Ed.D., Emeritus Professor of Art
Goshen College