Perspectives on Learning Assessment in the Arts in Higher Education
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Perspectives on Learning Assessment in the Arts in Higher Education

Supporting Transparent Assessment across Artistic Disciplines

Diane Leduc, Sébastien Béland, Diane Leduc, Sébastien Béland

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eBook - ePub

Perspectives on Learning Assessment in the Arts in Higher Education

Supporting Transparent Assessment across Artistic Disciplines

Diane Leduc, Sébastien Béland, Diane Leduc, Sébastien Béland

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About This Book

Drawing on theoretical and empirical insights from art teachers in Canada and Europe, this edited volume explores the question of how learning in the arts can be effectively and fairly assessed in the context of higher education.

The chapters consider a rich variety of assessment practices across music, visual and plastic arts, performing arts, design, fashion, dance and music and illustrate how knowledge, competencies, skills and progress can be viably and fairly assessed. Contextual challenges to assessment are also considered in depth, and particular attention is paid to the challenges of reconciling teaching in the arts, aimed at an intuitive transformation of the student, and assessing learning that takes on its meaning in subjectivity and sensitivity.

This text will benefit researchers, academics and educators in higher education with an interest in assessment in the artistic disciplines and in the topic of creativity more broadly. Those specifically interested in educational assessment policy and the visual arts will also benefit from this book.

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Part One

Fundamental Perspectives

About Subjectivity and Intentionality

1 The Ethics of Assessing Learning in the Arts

Denis Jeffrey and Lorna Boily
DOI: 10.4324/9781003198307-3
Other animals live in an environment, whereas we live in the worlds we create. This formula highlights the precedence of the symbolic imagination in our relationships with the real. Gilbert Durand understood, like Carl Gustav Jung and Mircea Eliade before him, that we think with symbols. They contend that the capacity to attach meaning to symbols is unique to mankind. Their structure coats all of our ideas. Symbols define the human being, while the human being defines itself through symbols. Durand (1964) stresses that without them we would not know how to say who we are: “for human consciousness, nothing is presented simply, but everything is represented…. Homo sapiens is ultimately a symbolicum animal” (p. 64). There is no avoiding the representations through which we perceive things, reflect on them and bear judgements. Our esthetic sensibility is not unrelated to these representations, allowing us to distinguish the beautiful from the ugly, as well as to both marvel and experience disgust. This Durandian perspective will serve as our viewpoint in this chapter. It allows us to maintain that beauty is not the intrinsic attribute of an artistic production but rather a construction stemming from esthetic traditions which establish criteria for appreciating it. In that respect, the judgement of an artistic production fosters itself, fine-tunes itself and, in the end, becomes more sophisticated. It does not stem from innate knowledge or intuition. There is no esthetic instinct which would allow us to recognize the value of a work, to appreciate and desire it. The esthetic judgement must be nurtured, and, like all judgements, it impacts the affective, narrative and reflexive dimensions. In this chapter, we will examine the ethics required of professors who are training students in the arts.
Even if the esthetic value of artistic productions provokes serious debate among specialists, we must observe that we know how to appreciate the quality of paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Pellan. If we are moved by a Botticelli or a Renoir, it is because we have learned to recognize the genius of these works. Their appreciation cannot depend on an innate sense of taste, because this would be to ignore long traditions of interpretation of artistic works and of the recognition of the quality of artists’ labour. In the context of training in the arts, students1 must learn these traditions, because it helps to learn the criteria to appreciate an artistic production. These traditions constitute objective educational content that is relatively easy to assess. But, if a teacher seeks to awaken students’ esthetic sensibility, or if he or she is guiding them towards a creative experience, then assessment becomes a real challenge.
In addition to the fact that this requires thorough preparation, learning from this subjective experience is not as easily assessed as objective content. Wise teachers could turn to co-assessment by which they could enable students to describe their creative experience while giving it meaning. In the first section of this chapter, we present the ethical and esthetic issues in the assessment of an academic artistic production. The second section is dedicated to a general conception of professors’ ethics. This is followed, in the third section, by a reflection on the ethics of responsibility in teaching. The fourth section concerns the ethical issues linked to the task of assessing student learning in the arts. Finally, we present some avenues of reflection to grasp the initiatory dimension of an academic artistic production.

1 The Context of Teaching in the Arts

Learning assessment, whether formative or summative, produces a result which should be as objective as possible, given that it is supposed to represent the quality of a student’s work. The result should indicate their progress to students, the value of their teaching to professors and a measure of the quality of the programme and the training to educational establishments. Even if they strive for objectivity, teachers generally recognize that their assessing judgement has to deal with their subjectivity (Jeffrey, 2013). At the time of the assessment, they might be tired, inattentive, less concentrated or even exasperated by early draft versions. Assessing judgement is not unaffected by mood changes, a loss of energy or lassitude. Teachers may be more or less severe, depending on whether they are starting or finishing their corrections. In fact, all teachers have experienced moments of hesitation in assessing a student’s work. Does the assigned grade reflect its true value? Is it too low or too high compared to other students’ grades? Is it equitable, impartial, unbiased? Should the works be reviewed to ensure fairness in the distribution of grades?
Teachers of various artistic disciplines, at all levels of teaching, recognize the complex task of assessing student productions as objectively as possible. Their discretionary authority, while not being called into question, must still be circumscribed by values of justice, probity, equity and impartiality. Let us emphasize from the outset that, in Québec, there are no legal procedures to contest a teacher’s decision in an academic assessment.2 Nonetheless, disgruntled students may complain to the highest authorities and register a request for a grade review if they believe they are victims of an error or unfair treatment. A review committee can maintain, increase or decrease a student’s grade. Nevertheless, a professor’s assessment is a private act, autonomous and discretionary. Given this professional authority over the assessment process, students must trust their teachers. It is in performing their tasks with professionalism that teachers maintain, and even bolster, this trust.
Assessments may have a significant impact on a student’s future (Lemay, 2000). Obviously, students are afraid of arbitrary assessments, especially when a teacher gives a grade without justifying it with clarifications. For the sake of objectivity, a number of teachers ask students to participate in the assessment of their work. Students, however, are not always comfortable with self-assessment, because it can be difficult to pass honest and circumspect judgement on one’s own work. However, students would be less embarrassed by a co-assessment which is both oral and written—by means of a reflective notebook or portfolio to record the stages of the production of the work in which both the student and the teacher keep track of their exchanges—to the extent that there is agreement on the assessment criteria. Experience demonstrates that these criteria may be of various types: esthetic, pedagogical, didactic and ethical. Those of a pedagogical nature do not only concern performance or competency but also procedures which students must accurately follow: preparation, usage and storage of materials, behaviour management, following instructions, and so forth. In a creative workshop, every participant must also clean the tools used and wash their hands.
Professors can introduce students to esthetic values through objects with which they are already familiar, such as tags, murals, record jackets, comic strips or illustrations in books. Regardless of the artistic objects studied, students must become familiar with the criteria recognized by artistic traditions not only to appreciate them but, above all, to judge them from a critical perspective as well. Indeed, the “critical assessment” of a work means precisely establishing a point of view according to the criteria recognized by a community of specialists. In fact, the in-depth knowledge of established criteria to critically judge artistic productions is as important as the knowledge of artistic productions themselves. In the absence of criteria, there is a danger that judgement might lapse into personal opinion or plain individual preferences. Personal opinion may, however, serve as a first step to begin the study of a work, but, in itself, the opinion is not open to discussion. The teacher must lead students to move beyond the level of personal taste and opinions, stemming from affectivity, towards narration and then reflexiveness. The narrative level is already more sophisticated than that of affectivity, since it requires a more refined intellectual process based on the student’s account of his or her esthetic experiences. As for the reflective level, this allows for a judgement which takes into account established criteria and is distinguished by the quality of its justification. This is why the teaching of historical, social, political and esthetic criteria, through which students may pass reflective judgements, is didactically indispensable. Furthermore, while judgements developed from criteria are certainly debatable, they are nonetheless assessable.
Assessment must touch upon the entirety of students’ learning process, not merely their final productions, achievements and performances. More than in other disciplines, pedagogy in the arts is extremely individualized. Teachers in the arts supervise up to 35 students (sometimes more), working simultaneously on 35 different projects, with the help of 35 divergent creative processes, leading to 35 distinct assessments. We understand that, for these teachers, assessment constitutes an exhausting chore, especially since they need to assume responsibility for classes at different levels of instruction. Certainly, the task of assessment, added to the task of classroom management, is colossal. A study on this subject by Kuster (2010) reveals that issues related to assessment and classroom management are crucial for teachers in the arts at the high school level. Other research (Huberman, 1989; Boutin, 2003; Gervais, 1999; Martineau and Gauthier, 1999) shows that new high school teachers do not feel well prepared to run their classes and assess the learning. This feeling could be that much greater for teachers in the arts, given their numerous challenges. Based on this sentiment shared by new teachers, two researchers (Norman and Feiman-Nemser, 2005) consider that teacher training does not contribute enough to the development of practical skills such as classroom management and learning assessment. For their part, Lenoir and Tochon (2004) describe how new teachers’ educational actions are largely improvised since they feel overwhelmed by their many responsibilities. It is not unreasonable to extrapolate from these results based on high school teachers, given that professors at colleges and universities are not necessarily trained in the pedagogical competencies associated with assessment. As with many teachers, they learn from their own experiences.
In other words, a number of researchers (including Gauthier et al., 1997; Tardif and Lessard, 2000) express doubts about new teachers’ ability to competently carry out assessments—and this applies to all levels of instruction. However, they must learn quickly to keep up with their responsibilities, without committing too many mistakes or picking up too many bad habits. Since assessment is a major challenge, we suspect that it demands particular ethical attention from teachers.

2 Ethics and Mutual Confidence

Even though ethics3 can assume many forms, it always concerns regulations affecting individual liberties (Canto-Sperber, 2001). In democratic societies such as Canada, we enjoy a number of freedoms that the previous generations did not have. Take, for instance, women’s right to access any university programme. Our human rights charters, which have existed for less than half a century, ratify the individual liberties which affect, in particular, religious convictions, the expression of ideas and sexual orientation. Thus, we are the envy of those living in countries which tolerate racism, sexism and homophobia. Yet these hard-won liberties are fragile. They must be protected by democratic institutions. At the same time, each individual must learn to familiarize themselves with them, to use them with wisdom and to take responsibility for them. ...

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