How Do You Grade a Creative Assignment?

Dear Bonni,

I’ll be teaching a course on the history of Ireland later this year. I’ve been having trouble coming up with a good project for the students to work on. I want it to be something useful, interesting, and (perhaps most importantly) memorable, but I’m not sure what it should be. Seeing as how art has been such a big part of Irish history and culture, I was thinking about something artistic in some way, but how on earth do I grade something creative?

I want the students to do something historical, obviously—depict an event or person, perhaps—but I understand that not everyone is equally creative in the arts. I’ve thought about opening it up widely—write a historical novelette (using primary sources, of course), create a sculpture, write a song—but, again, I have no idea how to grade something like that, considering the wide range of talent that my students likely will have.

Do I grade a student lower if she/he isn’t able to write a song or create some kind of representative artistic element? What do I do?

—From Brian Plummer, adjunct history professor at Vanguard University

Dear Brian,

You have posed such vital questions. The desire to have students produce something useful, interesting and memorable is to be admired. Your pursuit of this kind of assignment reminds me of an interview I did for the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast with Ken Bain, author of “What the Best College Teachers Do.” In the conversation, Bain encouraged professors to “ask engaging questions that spark people’s curiosity and fascination… questions that people find intriguing.” He stressed that good teaching is about inviting students to solve problems or answer questions they find “intriguing, interesting or even beautiful.”

The concerns you have about assessing creative work seem to reflect an important (I would even say necessary) ethic you are attempting to live up to in your teaching. Corinne Gressang, assistant professor of history at Erskine College, had similar concerns about assessing student work in her history course. She tweeted:

“In my course on The Holocaust, I gave my students choice between a final project and a final exam. I feel weird about testing them on genocide.”

There are certainly ample problems with grades that would take up far more space than even ten of my standard column lengths would require. When I talked with Josh Eyler, director of faculty development and director of the think forward quality enhancement plan at the University of Mississippi, about the problem with grades on the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast, he urged us to recognize that:

“The more we focus on grades, the less we focus on learning.”

Testing students on genocide does indeed seem problematic, particularly when we consider the outcomes Gressang’s students were able to achieve with the choice to demonstrate their learning in more novel ways. Gressang’s subsequent tweets reveal what some of the students enrolled in her class created for this final assignment.

One student composed a song, using string instruments, with the goal of evoking the ominous and anxious feelings related to that period in world history. Others in the class applied for and received funding from their university’s student government association and held a campus-wide night of remembrance. Another student’s final project took the form of a video with photos and narration, comparing the class’ learning about the Holocaust with recent events in Ukraine.

Start Small

Gressang and the many other faculty who have assigned these kinds of projects are certainly inspiring. When we see the final results, what it took to get there can sometimes get obscured.

In Gressang’s case, she pulled back the curtain in subsequent tweets. She said that the key thing isn’t about assigning a high-stakes final project and having students submit their work by the due date. For complex final assignments to work well, instructors need to encourage students to start small and break the assignment up into smaller pieces.

Among her specific advice:

  • Ask students to develop a proposal for their project and work together to determine what criteria will be used to evaluate the assignments.
  • Have students turn in a reflection at the end.
  • Include citations in their submissions, and
  • Potentially have students turn in drafts along the way.

I have found that it does take time for us all to unlearn some of the habits of mind we’re used to when approaching academic projects.

To help set a new tone, professors can look for opportunities in the classroom to encourage student curiosity and wonder.

Peter Newbury, an educational developer at Red River College Polytechnic, even invites us to take advantage of the minutes before a class starts to get students thinking. Along with many other members of the astronomy educators community, Newbury used to include an astronomy picture of the day from NASA as students came into class. The photo would generally get a glance as people arrived, but then conversations about other topics would quickly ensue. By adding two prompts under each photo, he found that the conversations before time to begin were transformed:

  1. What do you notice?
  2. What do you wonder?

Start small when thinking about ways to help students unlearn a more transactional approach to learning. Give them ample opportunity to wonder about what they’re learning. Break large projects into smaller pieces, such that you can extend the invitations to get curios and experience deeper learning over time.

In his book, “How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching,” Josh Eyler reminds us that:

“In order to learn something, we must first wonder about it.”

Assess Creativity

Ok, so how do you grade these creative assignments? Before answering that question, first consider whether what you want to measure is truly creativity.

The American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) uses this definition within their creative thinking Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate (VALUE) rubric:

“Creative thinking is both the capacity to combine or synthesize existing ideas, images, or expertise in original ways and the experience of thinking, reacting, and working in an imaginative way characterized by a high degree of innovation, divergent thinking, and risk taking.”

As you reflect on what you are seeking to develop and assess with the students enrolled in your class, consider exploring the other VALUE rubrics within the broader AAC&U VALUE System, such as global learning or critical thinking.

Another resource for further exploration is the Harvard University Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero’s Visible Thinking project. The project’s website notes that it has two goals, to “cultivate students’ thinking skills and dispositions,” and “to deepen content learning.”

One example that might help you in teaching the history of Ireland class is the group’s Creative Question Starts thinking routine. As you introduce a new theme in the course, or a new time in Ireland’s history, you could have students go through questions such as: “Why….? What if…? How would it be different if…? Suppose that…? What would have changed if…?”

Once you have identified the skills, abilities and knowledge you want to gauge with the assignment, it could be that you’re looking less at trying to see how creative these students are and more wanting to give them options for how to show what they have gained from the class. If you want to provide alternative means for demonstrating learning, The CAST Universal Design for Learning (UDL) action and expression guidelines may help you think through how to provide choices to these students. Harvard University’s Alternative Assignments: Creative and Digital resource has some cautionary notes and advice that should be helpful as you further explore your options. Among those is the warning about the amount of preparation these types of assignments may require for students.

I hope to hear how this first attempt goes in the coming semester. First attempts at alternative assessment can often be messy (as can subsequent experiments). But the rewards for students and teachers alike can be transformative.