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Objective or Subjective? Can the arts be assessed? June 13, 2017

Posted by Editor21C in Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
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By Rachael Jacobs

 As with any subject area arts education must conform to curriculum policies and procedures, including those related to assessment. In subjects such as Dance, Drama, Music and Visual Arts, students’ creative work is assessed formatively and summatively through a range of assessable instruments. However, the assessment of artistic work presents unique challenges, as the processes used are highly dependent on a wide range of interrelated contributions. This leads to wide speculation that the arts cannot be assessed, as all judgements are merely subjective.

 Arts learning is multifaceted in that it connects to the human experience, engages learners in imaginative and aesthetic growth, accesses technical skills and allows for vocationally orientated experiences. It is also creative and dynamic, using assessment tasks to gauge artistic responses upon the learning trajectory. It is arguable that ongoing and regular assessments are critical components of the arts classroom. Students’ creative work is assessed formatively and summatively through a range of assessable instruments, including individual and group performances, journals and logbooks, design portfolios, director folios, script development, improvisation tasks, video production, self-reflection, theatre reviews and interviews. Performance assessments in particular can be complex because of the variations between performance sites, the requirement for ensemble or group work, the nature of the ensemble or group, the access to technical equipment and the composition and reactions of any audience that might be in attendance (Oreck et al. 2003).

But these problems can be addressed through effective assessment task design. The larger issue is the perception that the formal and widespread assessment of artistic creations can result in a stifling of individual expression, imagination, creativity and originality, while not allowing for the fresh pursuit of ideas (Hanley 2003). A wide range of responses are also plausible to a particular task. Despite these challenges, system-wide assessment in the arts is achievable and necessary to establish the credibility of the field and to provide systems for identifying student achievement within the formal school curricula.

One of the biggest challenges identified by Harris (2008) is that ‘creativity’ is not easily defined and is therefore difficult to assess. Assessment in aesthetic domains also utilises personal responses to stimuli, which can be unfamiliar to those more accustomed to assessment tasks with previously defined answers. This is where the duality of objective and subjective constructs comes into play. Haynes (2008) and Ross (1993) describe traditional assessment methods, as identified by Hyde (2013), as being focussed on objectivity, whereby assessors are expected to discard their own feelings in favour of strictly set criteria in which interpretations are not required.

A focus on objective judgments is contrary to arts education, and indeed, the broader aims of education. O’Toole et al. (2009) remind us, “Knowledge and learning are of course never objective nor value-neutral, much though ultraconservative groups and politicians might wish them to be seen as such” (p. 108). Jackson (2006) justifies the validity of creative assessment tasks, arguing that “it should be possible to separate subjective judgments of creativity from judgments of technical goodness and from judgments of aesthetic appeal” (p. 169). Tomlinson (2001) argues for a healthy balance between subjective and objective judgments in order to create informed judgments on performance assessment that provide the most ‘individually sensitive, accurate and comprehensive evidence’ (p. 15) of student learning. Misson (1996) goes so far as to identify arts education as a site for the construction of subjectivity, which he argues operates at the nexus of intelligence and emotion: “thought is charged with feeling, while feeling is refined and strengthened by thought” (p. 11). In this respect, it has long been argued that subjects such as Drama teach empathy (Holland 2009; Trinder 1977). Similarly, Bolton (1984) describes Drama as a process of ‘unselfing’, which makes subjective and alternative responses a valid part of the dramatic response.

The assessor is concurrently an arts consumer, but is more active than other audience members. The ability of the assessor to capture their thoughts on the quality of work as it occurs is vital to the integrity of the assessment process. For example, during a performance, the assessor is required to make judgments about the quality of the work and physically notate their thoughts in relation to given criteria. The assessor makes cognitive links between student choices based on the assessment criteria, balancing their judgements with their own implicit criteria, which are necessarily based on their personal experiences (Baptiste 2008). While an audience member is permitted to make purely subjective judgments, the assessor aims to make informed judgments, which may result in marks or grades being recorded. Teachers in the arts develop expertise in assessing the outcome of the aesthetic process or the manifestation of the individual aesthetic experience. The product is therefore viewed from a number of perspectives and informed judgments are made by the assessor based on set criteria and personal discretionary judgements in relation to, and the quality of, what is produced (Ross 1993).

Leach et al. (2000) argue that assessors are consciously and unconsciously biased by their own values, preferences and dispositions. In this respect, personal responses from both the assessor and the student can widen the possibilities for interpretation (Ross 1993). Rather than command that assessors discard these personal responses, it is preferable for students to be taught to use individuals’ insights to reflect upon, and if necessary, make adjustments to their performances (Soep 2005). Students do not create art solely for the purpose of being assessed; rather they engage in arts education to pursue their own artistic expression. Therefore, students should be encouraged to assess feedback and apply their own artistic decisions to their work. Both students and teacher-assessors should be aware that subjective responses are natural, as they are rooted in “culturally authorised criteria” for judgment of the level of achievement (Ross 1993, p. 164). However, the assessor’s judgement is recorded in quantifiable terms such as grades or marks; therefore, the student has a heightened awareness of the assessor’s responses in the high-stakes assessment environment.

The literature suggests that subjective judgements are endemic in the arts assessment environment and can never be divorced from the process. At the same time, the ‘healthy balance’ (Tomlinson 2001, p. 15) between subjective and objective judgments are ideally what the teacher-assessor should deliver. Subjective and objective perspectives combine to create informed judgements that broaden interpretations on the students’ art. This can be somewhat challenging to those not accustomed to assessment in affective domains, using aesthetically charged mediums. Academic work is traditionally associated with rational and quantifiable modes of thinking, therefore arts educators should take care to make their language accessible and their assessment processes transparent. Arts educators’ challenge to traditional learning and assessment paradigms is also important because it broadens the educational community’s understanding of the nature of learning. Discussing the merits of creative assessment tasks is also important as it allows for the rigour and complexities of the tasks to become visible to those outside of artistic fields.

The challenges associated with arts assessment, like the arts themselves, are heavily nuanced. Teachers and students do not engage in arts assessment to have a complete and full understanding of all its nuances. They engage in the arts to experience the joy of creative expression and artistic creation, to play ‘pretend’ in a range of roles and to build a more comprehensive understanding of the human experience through an array of lenses. There is also joy within challenge; Arts performance assessment contains areas of ambiguity and subtleties that lack definitive answers. The subtleties add to the richness of the field, challenging educators to engage in meaningful discussions in order to find ways to enhance fairness and equity amid the ambiguity.

References:

Baptiste, L. (2007). Managing subjectivity in arts assessments. In: L. Quamina-Aiyejina, ed., Reconceptualising the Agenda for Education in the Caribbean, 1st ed. [online] St. Augustine: School of Education, UWI., pp.503-509. Available at: http://uwispace.sta.uwi.edu/dspace/bitstream/ handle/2139/6714/Cross-Campus%20Conference%20Proceedings%202007. pdf?sequence=1. [Accessed 17 Jul. 2012].

Bolton, G. (1984). Drama as education. Harlow, England: Longman.

Hanley, B. (2003). Policy issues in arts assessment in Canada: “Let’s get real”. Arts Education Policy Review, 105(1), pp.33-38.

Harris, J. (2008). Developing a language for assessing creativity: A taxonomy to support student learning and assessment. Investigations in University Teaching and Learning, 5(1), pp.http://www.londonmet.ac.uk/ fms/MRSite/psd/hr/capd/investigations/vol5/INV%205_013%20-%20Harris.pdf.

Haynes, F. (2008). What counts as a competency in the arts?. In: Australian Association for Research in Education Conference. [online] Brisbane. Available at: http://www.aare.edu.au/data/publications/1993/haynf93103.pdf [Accessed 29 Mar. 2016].

Holland, C. (2009). Reading and acting in the world: conversations about empathy. Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, 14(4), pp.529-544.

Hyde, D. (2013). What makes a good secondary assessment? On achieving the aims of assessment. Journal of Education and Practice, 4(13), pp.188-197.

Jackson, N. (2006). Developing creativity in higher education. London: Routledge.

Leach, L., Neutze, G. and Zepke, N. (2015). Learners’ perceptions of assessment: Tensions between philosophy and practice. Studies in the Education of Adults, 32(1), pp.107-119.

Misson, R. (1996). Dangerous lessons: sexuality issues in the drama classroom. NADIE Journal, 20, pp.11-21.

Oreck, B., Baum, S. and Owen, S. (2004). Assessment of potential theater arts talent in young people: The Development of a New Research-Based Assessment Process. Youth Theatre Journal, 18(1), pp.146-163.

O’Toole, J., Stinson, M. and Moore, T. (2009). Drama and curriculum. Dordrecht: Springer.

Ross, M. (1993). Assessing achievement in the arts. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Soep, E. (2005). Critique: Where art meets assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 87(1), pp.38-63.

Tomlinson, C. (2001). Grading for success. Educational Leadership, 58(6), pp.12-15.

Trinder, J. (1977). Drama and social development. NADIE Journal, June, pp.33-43.

 

Dr Rachael Jacobs is a lecturer in arts education in the School of Education at Western Sydney University.  She is a former secondary teacher (Dance, Drama and Music) and primary Arts specialist.

 

 

 

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