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

Chapter Six: Assessment and Grading


It’s tempting to wait until the student has completed an assignment or a task to communicate how they performed. This summary feedback is important to deliver. But, while this is easier and less time consuming than constant feedback, it lacks some of the effectiveness than continual “in the moment” reviews. This is because, at the end of the project, the decision making process and the critical thinking is over. Students will view the feedback in the context of what they made, rather than what they did. This means they can’t course correct. They won’t be able to improve the steps in their process, the decisions they make along the way, or the problem solving method selection criteria (“I used this method to solve that problem”).

This puts a larger burden on me to work with students in a more direct, intimate capacity. To assess and redirect design effort in the moment means that I need to be there next to the student when they make decisions. In-class activities and studio courses act as the best context for this form of feedback, as they are contexts for doing things. But more intimate, one-on-one feedback requires more time with each student, and that means one of two things. Either I dedicate more time, overall, to the class, or there need to be less students. I keep my class sizes small so that I can focus on each student in more depth. Not all professors have that luxury, and that means that if they want to correct behavior in the moment, they’ll need to spend more time in class and with the students.

Frequent feedback also means that I’m more intimately aware of what the student is doing, and that means I can be more detailed in my comments. Design decisions come fast and furious in the heart of the process, and if I only check in once a week, it’s hard for me to really understand what students did and why they did it. More frequent feedback means I can be aware of those detailed decisions and can better understand the intent behind a student’s actions.

I deliver grading feedback through both in-person (verbal) conversation and through written grading worksheets.

In-person feedback

In-person, verbal feedback provides an important opportunity for students to participate in a dialogue about their process, rather than a monologue. In a feedback session like this, I can deliver criticism about their process or their attitude and effort, and they can respond to help me understand why they are doing the things they are doing. Together, we can work through problems and come to solutions.

This in-person feedback can be delivered publicly in a group setting, or privately in a more one-on-one evaluation session. There are pros and cons to each. In a group setting, feedback can be delivered instantly. “In situ” feedback—delivering the feedback immediately and out loud—is one of the most effective ways of course-correcting negative behavior. This is because the actions that are most familiar (the most recent) are still active as episodic experiences: they still have “color” to their details, rather than fading into generalities. More direct feedback can be offered immediately, and as we’ve seen above, that directness is important for students to learn.

On the other hand, public feedback can be embarrassing for a student, and they may ignore the feedback and instead focus only on the fact that they did something they perceive as wrong. This is a miseducative experience: there is no learning happening, only shaming.

Private feedback is delayed, and that means that I need to be more proactive in remembering the details of the learning situation. I need to take better notes so that I can offer nuanced evaluation even after the fact. However, this form of feedback is helpful for students to privately internalize what they need to improve. They can focus on the skills or concepts themselves, instead of being overwhelmed with their own feelings.

Public and private in-person feedback is about trust. Early in their educational journey, I haven’t established the trust of students, and so public feedback feels less fair—students don’t understand that my criticism is coming from a place of respect, and so they are more likely to ignore the substance of the feedback and focus only on the emotion of it. Later in the quarter, when I have established the respect and trust of the group, public feedback is more likely to resonate and feel appropriate.

Written feedback

Written feedback is valuable too, but rarer in design contexts (perhaps design professors don’t like to write!) Written feedback sheets are artifacts that, like any design artifacts, put stakes in the ground. They say “this, but not that” in a way that’s memorable, because students can refer to the written feedback over and over. Written feedback also gives me a chance to compose my thoughts more thoroughly. I can be much more detailed, and instead of simply providing feedback on an artifact, I can better prepare feedback on attitude, approach, and teamwork. This means I can offer more complicated, more nuanced, and more thoughtful responses with the benefit of my own reflection.

When I write feedback, I often find myself writing similar comments for each student. I’ll leverage both custom writing per student, and also common writing. I’ll create a series of statements and copy/paste them for each student. This isn’t lazy grading—it’s common that students at a similar place in the curriculum will benefit from the same feedback. But it’s important to offer a balance of comments that are widely applicable, and comments that are unique to each student; the personalized nature of feedback makes it more likely that a student will hear and integrate that feedback into their process.

I use written evaluation when students have completed a large or important milestone in their learning—often, the end of a project or the creation of an artifact. This gives me something concrete to use to assess their skill or knowledge acquisition. I can focus on the learning outcomes and compare them to the work product, and be as objective as possible in offering ways to improve. I’ll write personalized comments (often 1000 words or more) to help students reflect on the previous 8 weeks. These comments typically include:

  • A reflection on comprehensive skills learned. I’ll describe the skills that I expected the student to learn, and then describe the progress I observed. For example, I may explain to students that I saw them gain competency in sketching, evidenced by their improved use of perspective and line weight. This is a broad statement; it isn’t referring to any specific assignment or project, but instead, to a generalizable outcome. We defined these outcomes when we designed the class; this one may have been “The student will sketch accurately in perspective.” By comparing their work to the outcome, I help the student see how the course was valuable to them.
  • Comments on attitude and approach. It’s helpful for students to see, in writing, descriptions of behavior that’s both good and bad. For example, if a student is having trouble working with their team—and has had trouble working with their team for the entire quarter—this is an opportunity for me to help them see that the behavior is sustained.

    I might write something like

    “I consistently observed that you were ‘separate’ from your team. In many studio classes, you sat on the edge of the room and didn’t participate on our discussion. For example, during our last session, you did not actively participate in our discussion about perspective sketching. As a result of this behavior, your team suffered—they were left to guess what you were thinking, and they didn’t benefit from your contributions. In the future, I would like to see you better participate by speaking more frequently, sketching on the whiteboard, and sitting closer to the group.”

    This comment is specific, referencing continual behavior. If this behavior was a one-off, I would have been able to correct it during the specific studio session; but, in final feedback, my goal is to show patterns to students.
  • Positive reflection. An academic milestone should have room for positivity, too. I’ll be sure to include comments about how I see the student performing in the future. I may write something like

    “I’m excited to see how you progress through the next quarter, as you apply what you’ve learned related to sketching in perspective in your future assignments.”

    While not overly celebratory, this encourages the student to apply what they’ve learned and ends the quarter on a strong note, even if the student’s performance was not as productive as it should have been.

Expert-based feedback

In addition to in-person feedback and written feedback, I’ll also bring in experts to offer evaluation and help students see where they can improve: I invite working practitioners to class. Because they have deep expertise in design, they can offer detailed, supportive, and believable suggestions. And because they are a neutral third party, I’ve found that students tend to really listen to and react to their feedback.

I think this is because they come with an aura of respect based on where they work and what they’ve done. If I bring in a creative director from a famous consultancy like frog or IDEO, students value their opinion implicitly because they value that particular company’s work. Sometimes to my bemusement, the visiting expert can say exactly what I’ve been saying, but students are more likely to listen to them!

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