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

Chapter Six: Assessment and Grading

The structure of feedback

Design isn’t an objective field. There are better and worse design decisions, but not right and wrong decisions. In that subjectivity comes the importance of an expert. As the professor, it’s unlikely that I’m an expert in the specific subject matter the student is exploring (for example, if a student is designing a banking application, it’s unlikely that I’m an expert in banking apps). But I am an expert in the design process, and so I can offer expert feedback based on my experience. This is often subjective, and frequently delivered through a qualitative method (conversations or long written paragraphs).

But design can be assessed quantitatively, too, and while subjective, can be assessed consistently across students (what I sometimes call “subjective objectivity”). In these cases, I prepare a rubric that breaks down a comprehensive grade into smaller, more understandable and more piecemeal assessment opportunities and assign these point values.

For example, if I’m offering graded feedback on a design research report, I could simply give the entire report a grade of A-F and then offer written feedback. Or, I could take a more nuanced approach and break the feedback (and grade) into smaller pieces. I could individually assess:

  • Was the report well written—did it have spelling or grammatical errors?
  • Was the report well structured—did the contents flow in a way that was easy to understand?
  • Was the methodology clear—can an audience understand what actions the student took?
  • Were the findings in the report actionable—could someone take the findings and use them to make design changes?
  • I’ve now broken down an assessment into smaller, more digestible parts. I can grade each of these, perhaps giving each item 25 points instead of giving the whole assignment a single grade from 1-100. And, I could develop a more objective way of thinking about these point values. I might say that the most important part of the assignment was that the findings were actionable. So, I could give this part of the project a maximum of 70 points. This signals to the student that they should spend the most time on this part of the project. It also gives me more flexibility in grading—there’s more fidelity and nuance within a 70 point range.

    I’m of two minds about assigning point values to design work. Points help students (particularly less experienced students) understand how they are doing in a very clear, concise way. Larger points are indicative of better work; it’s a very accessible way to understand progress. Points also add some level of continuity across students, so that grading becomes more fair. This helps me become more consistent when I’m grading a large number of assignments.

    But I’ve found that (not surprisingly) when given points, students tend to focus on the points rather than the qualitative feedback. Sometimes, those inexperienced students will argue for one or two more points, emphasizing that they disagree not with the substance of the assessment but only with the outcome.

    Additionally, points add a very pragmatic structure around what is otherwise a very fuzzy subject matter. They “feel wrong” in the context of design—they imply that as the instructor, I have the right answer and some magic insight into what leads to student success.

    I think the decision to assign point values depends on the context of the work. Assigning a “92” to a studio class seems incongruent with the organic nature of the course. But it may make more sense to have such a specific value when assessing a very particular skill, method, or set of facts—in a setting where students are practicing perspective drawing, for example, or where they are learning about the relationship between anatomy and human factors.

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