Evaluating Student Work
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Issue 4   |   October 1999 


More ideas:
5 Tips for Better Crits

Tag, Teams, and
"The List"


Book review
The Education of an E-Designer
by Steven Heller


Evaluating Student Work
ased on an article by Dr. Bruce Cline, Chair of the Photography Department at Lakeland Community College, Kirtland, OH

One of the primary means that teachers have to evaluate student photographs is the classroom critique. We were all taught that way and most of us use some variation of the photo critique. The classroom critique presents us with important learning opportunities but also with certain challenges.

What is Criticism?

In our culture, the term "criticism" has acquired negative connotations. It has become synonymous with ridicule and denigration for many people. So, it's no wonder many students experience apprehension about having their images critiqued. To mitigate these fears, we need to make clear to our students - and to ourselves - what we mean by "criticism." Here are a few definitions I have found useful: Edmund Feldman, noted art educator, defines criticism as "Participation in informed talk about art." I think "informed" is the key word here. Morris Weitz, philosopher, defines criticism as "The use of words to facilitate understanding art." Terry Barrett, art educator, defines it as "Describing, interpreting, evaluating and theorizing about art." To these I would add my own definition: "The application of critical thinking methods to understanding art." Critics can do any or all of the above activities but you will notice that drawing value judgments as to whether a work is good or bad is only one part of a critical review.

A good critic takes into account the varied needs of different audiences. For example, I was recently asked to do a critique on slide night for a local camera club . What I did there was very different from what I do in my in my classes at the college. For example, there was no common assignment for the camera club, consequently each photographer was working toward slightly different goals. Part of my job that night was to figure out what each person was trying to do before I could offer any useful advice.

The best book I have come across regarding the photo critique is Criticizing Photographs by Terry Barrett, published by Mayfield Publishing Co. Although it focuses primarily on writing about photographs, it is an excellent reference on the theory of photo criticism.

Why is Criticism Important?

The critique is the primary vehicle through which students get feedback on their work. Improvement in image making is almost always based upon the reactions we get from others after they look at and consider our work. Few of us could survive in the art world if we lived in a critical vacuum. We gain an important kind of objectivity in relation to our work when we listen to what others have to say about it.

The photo critique also teaches students about visual literacy, that is the skill of finding meaning in images. Visual literacy is a key component to living a free existence. We live in a society where we are inundated by advertising and entertainment images. If we are unaware of how these images are made, how they are manipulated and how they influence our likes and dislikes, then we really can't make free decisions in areas as varied as what kind of breakfast cereal we buy or what kind of sexual partners we look for - not that I put those choices on the same level of importance. The point is, we need to know how images affect us and how they influence our lives and the photo critique is one of the few places where students can learn this.

The kind of criticism we do in our classes is applied criticism - as opposed to theoretical criticism. Students are supposed to use the feedback to improve their work. We are trying to affect changes in their process of making images. The grades I assign to my students' work are nowhere near as useful in promoting growth as hearing what an audience has to say about their images.

What are we looking for?

Two things of great importance are established during the critique: standards and values. Standards are solutions to technical, creative or aesthetic problems commonly accepted by a group of peers working toward similar goals. For instance, in a basic photography course, a common standard is that prints be mounted and spotted before the critique.

Values, on the other hand, are priorities or an order of importance that the group assigns to individual standards. For instance, in a given instructor's class, is it more important to have a properly executed technical print, or to have a creative solution to the problem? And under what conditions would the answer hold true?

However, it's not as simple as handing out a list of rules. Students are often required to deal with some very complex issues during the critique. It seems to me that the critique is much like a living laboratory in that you add a stimulus - the image - to an active environment - the audience - and you often get some unpredictable results. If a student is to be successful in the group, he or she must assimilate the group's value system in all its subtleties and the critique is one of the few places where this can happen.

Types of Critiques

All of the critiques I've experienced can be laid out on a horizontal line representing the degree to which the teacher or the students participate in the discussions.

On the left I place all the approaches where the teacher does most or all of the talking and on the right I place all the approaches where the students do most of the talking. In the middle I place those approaches where theparticipation is more evenly divided between the teacher and the students.

Let's look at the structural differences in the way critiques are conducted and some of the advantages and disadvantages of using one type or another.

Type 1 Critique
In this approach, the teacher sets the agenda and does most of the talking. The students can choose to pay attention or not as the communication is mostly one way. This approach is very effective where students need to assimilate a lot of new information. For instance, in a beginning commercial photography class students need to understand what it is like to work for a client. A client would not ask for the photographer's philosophical view on why the image was made he or she would simply indicate whether the image fit the job specs or not. The advantage of the Type 1 critique is that it is a very efficient way to get through a number of images. On the other hand it is a lot of work for the instructor, and you don't know if the students are learning anything or not when you're doing all the talking.

Type 2 Critique
These are typified by several different approaches. One of the most common is where the instructor makes an observation to start the dialogue or asks the students to comment on a print. In the insuring exchange, there is a give and take between the teacher and students. When this type goes well, it can be exciting and informative. However instructors often find it difficult to get students to participate beyond grunts and nods - especially in an early morning class or right after lunch. Students are frequently afraid to say anything that might b e interpreted as negative for fear of hurting someone's feelings and getting paid back in kind when it is time for their prints to be critiqued. In this case, the instructor has to pick up the slack and we are back to teaching a Type 1 critique.

In response to this problem, I came up with an approach I call the small group critique. To use this approach, the instructor outlines some basic guidelines by which to conduct the critique. The class is then broken down into groups of five or six students each and prints are distributed so that no group is holding any image made by a member of that group. This allows for candid discussion without worrying about hurting anyone's feelings. One person in each group is designated or elected to take notes on the comments made by the group. The groups then discuss each of the images they hold.

What I have found is that student participation went from about 60% with the Type 1 critique to over 90% with the Type 2 approach. One of the many benefits is that the teacher is free to observe each of the groups to check on the rate of participation and quality of the discussion. In doing so I often hear things I want to follow up on later with the whole class. I am always impressed by the perceptiveness of the student comments when they are allowed to work in small groups. The dialogue is in their own voice, it's animated, and is often very funny.

I usually let the the groups run their course until I see someone looking around for the next prompt. Then I reconvene the whole class and the secretary from each group recounts what was discussed. It is at this point that the instructor can attend to things that might have been missed or correct misconceptions. The advantage of this approach is the remarkable level of student participation. Research shows that when students are actively involved in class, they enjoy the experience more and they learn more. The teacher's energy is used more efficiently because the students do most of the talking while the teacher is more of a guide or mentor. This approach works for all levels of students. The only drawback is a trade off of depth of analysis for breadth of coverage.

Type 3 Critique
There is only one example that I have found of this type of critique. It is the deep reading approach devised by Minor White. In this approach a small group of students give their undivided attention to one image at a time while suspending all value judgments about the image. The purpose is to allow the print to reveal its meaning to the viewer. The question for the viewer is not "Is this a good or bad photograph?" but "What is the image about and what does it have to say to me?" These questions can be answered when the viewer concentrates on the image without any preconceived notions about what it should be or do. Like looking at a Rorschach Test, the viewer interprets the image based upon his or her life experiences. The critique is usually preceded by a period of meditation or relaxation led by the instructor to help the group members focus their energy. It is important to see the images one at a time and it is helpful if the room is darkened and the prints are viewed under a spotlight. The instructor allows the students to share their impressions as they become aware of them.

The advantage of this approach is that if it is done correctly, the students learn something about themselves and this can be a deeply meaningful experience resulting in a highly motivated audience. The artist gets responses to his or her image on a much deeper level compared to the other approaches. One of the disadvantages is that it requires an instructor who is well versed in group dynamics and comfortable in dealing with the strong emotions that sometimes get expressed. It is also a very time consuming technique and one that sacrifices breadth of coverage for depth of interpretation. It is also not appropriate for large classes where there are many images to be critiqued. I believe it is also inappropriate for beginning classes where the suspension of value judgments would leave students without guidance on the standards for craftsmanship and aesthetics. The technique is best learned by participating is such a session under the guidance of an experienced mentor.

Which should you choose?
Each of us should experiment with different approaches so that we have several available to fit our teaching style, the learning styles of our students and the goals of the course we are teaching.

-Dr. Bruce Cline is Chair of the Photography Department at Lakeland Community College in Kirtland, Ohio. [E-mail him at]


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