In this section, Dr. Florian Hollerweger shares his insights about assessing students’ learning in a class focused on creative work. He discusses how he shares his assessment criteria explicitly with students, how he provides students with personalized feedback, and how he has one-on-one conversations with students about their grade expectations in the course.
Assessing More than Technical Problem-Solving
21M.380 Music and Technology: Sound Design is an MIT Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (HASS) course. The work students do in the course is creative and iterative in nature. This kind of learning experience is a vital part of their experience at MIT, because it helps them understand that education is not about “ticking the boxes” and fulfilling requirements—it’s about developing as a thinker and experiencing a process of personal growth.
One of the pitfalls of music technology courses, in my experience, is that it is easy for the instructor to focus too much on the technical problems involved in the work. In other words, it’s easy to turn this kind of work into programming exercises. This is tempting because, when it comes to assessing student learning, programming exercises are more straightforward to evaluate than students’ artistic endeavors (students either have a working program or they don’t). When I begin leaning in this direction, I remind myself that this is not the approach I should be taking, because, as a HASS course, students’ learning experiences in the class, and my assessment of their learning, must be about something else: creative growth.
Sharing Assessment Criteria with Students
One strategy I use to keep the focus on students’ creative development is to be explicit with them about my assessment criteria, many of which spotlight artistic elements, such as linguistic descriptiveness, sonic realism, or general playfulness. I list these criteria explicitly in the assignment instructions. It’s a strategy for communicating the fact that developing a working a program, alone, won’t necessarily make for a great sound design project. I use this strategy, because I find that MIT students, as you might expect, excel at solving engineering problems. There’s often an element of surprise when they find out that, in the case of a course like 21M.380 Music and Technology: Sound Design, completing the work purely from an engineering standpoint is not enough to guarantee them a good grade.
Providing Personalized Feedback
But how does one evaluate the quality of students’ creative work? That’s a harder question to answer generically. For my part, I try to assess students as individuals and to understand where they are along their individual paths of development. I think about what kind of feedback each person needs in that particular moment in order to grow.
It’s not easy, but I do this by providing personalized written feedback on every assignment. In fact, a large bulk of my work each semester involves providing this kind of feedback. I keep putting in the work, however, because students routinely comment in evaluations that receiving personalized feedback is one of the elements of the course they appreciate the most. I’m at the stage of my career (I’ve been teaching for about 5 years), where I’m trying to make this feedback process more manageable, especially when I’m teaching several classes at once. However, I’m also skeptical of efforts to automate this critical aspect of the education process. I feel that providing quality feedback simply requires that an instructor look carefully at the student's work and provide thoughtful comments - especially in the context of an Arts and Humanities class.
Openly Discussing Students’ Grade Expectations
When assigning grades, I find it helpful to keep in mind the following distinction: Is the student doing the work that is expected in the sense that he or she is completing the nuts and bolts of the assignment? Or is there some sort of spark that conveys that the student is doing more than pursuing credit for the course? Is there some indication that he or she is engaging in the work in a way that stretches the student’s abilities?
But at the same time, I’m critical of expecting all students to exhibit such a spark. Asking students to exhibit extraordinary effort in a class that they particularly enjoy is fine. But when all of their instructors, in all of their classes, expect this, students can feel tremendous pressure. There should be room in my class for students who just want to fulfill the requirements of the course and move on.
To understand which side students fall on (are they aiming to meet the baseline requirements or are they willing to go beyond that), I try to meet with each one of them individually at least once during the semester. We then often have a conversation about what their expectations are regarding grades. Are they aiming for A? Will a B satisfy them? Is a C an absolute catastrophe, or might it be acceptable? Once it’s clear what they hope to accomplish in the course, we talk about how we can work together to help them meet their goals.