How I Teach - Reflecting on 15 years in design education
by Jon Kolko

Chapter 6: Assessment and Grading

We’ve already discussed critique, a unique part of the design studio. Critique is a generative exercise, as it helps improve a design as the design comes to life. It happens continually through the design process.

But while critique is generative, students also benefit from hearing an evaluative form of criticism, something that’s intended to help them improve, not just help their design improve. It’s a subtle difference. Critique advances an idea, adding shape and definition to it. Evaluation helps a student reflect on the progress of their skill development and critical thinking abilities.

Students tend to continully self-assess based on the “quality of the thing they made” and the “quality of the things other people made.” They look at their friends and the other people in their class, compare their work, and then judge themselves.

This form of comparative assessment can be useful, because it provides students with examples that they can build on. When they see how other students solved a problem, it can change their own perspective on the problem and offer new solutions. They can explore new pathways and approaches.

But comparative assessment is also harmful, because it reinforces to some students that their expectations are high and their skills are low. It can be demoralizing. What’s more, it doesn’t provide them with specific actions to take to improve—it simple says “your work is not as good as her work.”

I’ve seen students react in two different ways when they focus on peer comparison. The first is that they give up. They feel that the divide between what they want to accomplish and what they are accomplishing is so great that it’s insurmountable. They don’t see a path from their own current skillset to the skills they need to succeed. And so they stop trying. They may literally give up, and drop out of the course or program. Or, they may figuratively stop trying, in the sense that they stop paying attention and stop putting effort into their learning. Both are destructive; both are hard to come back from.

The other way students react when peer comparison doesn’t live up to their expectations is that they double-down on the thing they made and fight for it. They argue, and defend their abilities, and stop being open and receptive to evaluation of their skills. This is, in many ways, worse than giving up entirely. A combative response is a wall, something that makes learning impossible. And once it’s there, that wall is really, really hard to tear down. It means that evaluation isn’t being received, and self-reflection stops.

What’s even more problematic is that the defensive feeling is like a virus. It infects the class, who then feel animosity towards that student. That’s not fair to any of the students in the class, and can divide a growing sense of community in the group.

Since peer comparison can be harmful, it’s important to introduce a variety of personal feedback, frequently, so students are guided towards a more productive style of introspection.

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