One Objective, Four Ways to Meet It; Replacing High-Stakes Exams with Multi-Option Creative Assessments
A recent pile of grading for my introductory course in Modern Art History featured a fact-filled (but fictional) short-story about Odilon Redon’s best friend, an ink drawing of a Mexican folktale completed in the style of Aubrey Beardsley, a video-presentation in which a student walked her viewers through the main characteristics of several late-19th century trends in European painting, and a research paper comparing two Suzanne Valadon paintings with two by Henri de Touluse-Lautrec. This lovely mix is typical for me these days; a few years ago I stepped away from the high-stakes exams + research paper model for my art history classes and began giving students options for how they could show what they’d learned. Every few weeks, students in my classes get to choose between visual art, fiction, non-fiction, and presentation or video formats for a project that assesses their understanding of the material. Over the course of the semester they do this many times (with a different set of style and time period options for each project, in order to reflect what we’ve most recently covered in class). Aside from in-class writing or group exercises and the occasional as-needed quiz, these multi-option projects account for the students’ entire grade.
When I design these projects, I always start with a specific objective, which helps me to insure that all students are learning the same ideas (even though they are demonstrating that learning in different ways).
Here is an example of one such objective: Make connections between 19th century French Realist painting and the way that people in that time and place experienced social class.
After I’ve established the objective, explained it to students, and stressed it through in-class lecture and discussion, I present them with their project options: four ways that they can further explore this objective and demonstrate that they fully understand it. For this particular objective, I offered the students the following four options:
Option 1: Choose an artwork from our study guide that offers insight into issues around social class in 19th century France. Complete a short (2-3 page) research paper in which you discuss your chosen artwork and explore the ways that it connects to and reflects the social or political climate of the period.
Option 2: Choose an artwork from our study guide that offers insight into issues around social class in 19th century France. After researching the artwork and preparing written notes, record a 5-7 minute voice-over video in which you present your artwork and topic to your classmates and teach them about the connections between your artwork and the social or political climate of the period. Your completed video will be shared with the class via an online discussion board.
Option 3: Compose a 2-3 page short story on the topic of social class in 19th century France. The main character in your story should be either the best friend of one of the artists we studied this week, or one of the characters that appears in a painting or sculpture from your study guide. Your narrative should be fictional, but you must research the time period and shape your story around at least five specific facts related to social class in that time and place.
Option 4: Create a visual “remix” of two artworks that relate to social class in France. One should be from the Realist movement (this week’s study guide), and the other can be from any of the earlier French styles we studied in this unit. Remix the two paintings in a way addresses issues related to social class. Collage, (with scissors and tape or with photoshop) may be a good way to go with this, but you can also make it a drawing or painting if you’d prefer! After you’ve created your “remix,” compose a short imaginary dialogue between the characters… imagine what they would say to one another if they were actually face to face (and be sure your dialogue includes specific facts that relate to the historical contexts for each of the artworks you’ve remixed).
[Student example courtesy of Emily Park (it is a remix of Millet’s L’Angelus with Lancret’s La Camargo Dancing).]
At first, it was painful for me to let go of slide ID, in-class essay questions, and the other elements of art history testing that I had been so accustomed to; like most art history professors, I loved (and excelled at) those types of assessments in college, and I knew that I personally had gotten a lot out of them. But despite my initial concerns, this change in how I structure my courses has been positive for my students (and for me) in every respect.
Some of the main benefits I’ve noticed since I’ve adopted this method…
- Students work harder since they feel more ownership over their choice
- In class discussions are more complex and more people participate, often because they are making sure they understand the material well enough to apply in in their projects.
- Students who want a challenge pick options that are more difficult for them.
- My grading is more fun (and it feels like it goes faster since there is a lot of variety).
- Coming up with new project options—sometimes with the input of students—has given me new perspectives on artworks and styles I’ve been teaching for more than a decade.
These are anecdotal observations—I have yet to gather much hard data in terms of comparative grading statistics— but I’ve so far been really pleased with the improvements I’ve seen in student engagement and success, and the room for adjustment and flexibility that is possible within this course structure has helped to keep me freshly engaged with the material.