Artist-Centered Evaluation
An Approach to the
Objective Grading of Creative Work

By Matt Buchanan

Results / Grading / Analysis

The Idea in Practice:

Grade 6 Monologue Performances

The sixth grade drama class was assigned two-minute acting monologues. At the beginning of the project, which covered three or four weeks in all, we practiced performing in front of each other, and discussed the various elements that went into a strong performance of a dramatic monologue. It is my hope that the system of evaluation used here will work with any kind of creative work, and this essay is not really about what makes a good monologue, but the examples below will be easier to understand if I briefly cover the elements we came up with. We first divided our elements into two categories--those concerned primarily with making the monologue MAKE SENSE and with making the performance consistent with the CHARACTER being presented, and those concerned primarily with making the monologue INTERESTING, and with aesthetics. We found that these categories overlapped a bit, but decided it didn't really matter.

SENSE ELEMENTS
  Enunciation and Pronunciation

Clarity of emotion

Pace (not rushing)

Volume

Familiarity with the text, allowing for correct word stresses, etc.
 

AESTHETIC ELEMENTS
(These may be a little harder to grasp)
  Shape--the amount of VARIETY in emotional intensity, energy level, volume, etc., and the composition of this variety to create a pleasing or compelling whole. This includes ideas such as building to a climax, making choices about when to use humor, etc.

Rhythm--the amount of variety in pace. This includes especially the effective use of pauses, and in this way overlaps with the sense elements, in that giving a character time to think before speaking contributes to FIRST-TIME QUALITY--the sense that a character is speaking the lines for the first time, rather than speaking a memorized text.

After the discussion period, we moved on to other things for a few days, while the students worked on their own to learn and rehearse their monologues. Then each student performed a "first draft" of his or her piece. After each performance the student received oral feedback from me and from the class. Then each student was given a form on which to indicate two or three elements he wanted particularly to concentrate on in revising for the second performance. I explained that grades for the performances (the "first draft" was not graded) would be based largely on how well each student IMPROVED her or his performance, especially in the specific areas chosen. Not surprisingly this idea went over extremely well with those students who felt less sure of themselves as actors, but who knew they were willing to work hard. But the good actors in the class responded well also, I think because it gave them some structure for improving their work. A primary reason I choose to work in the creative arts has always been the fact that everyone, no matter what their level of proficiency, can always strive for an even higher level. There is no such thing as a "perfect" performance (Olympic Gymnastics notwithstanding.) But it is often difficult for a student whose performance is "nearly perfect" to know where to go from there. I think this structure helped.

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Results

Below are some of the written comments I handed back after the final performances. The text in black is what the student wrote on her or his form after the "first drafts," and the text in red is my feedback after the second performance. I include these to illustrate the general approach I took. You will see that although I generally included at the end comments about all elements of the performance, I gave special attention to those elements on which each student chose to focus. I have removed the letter grades (and last names) from this report, partly out of respect for the students' privacy, and partly because letter grades are so different from one institution to another. (An "A" in one school might be a "B" in another.) But I have given some indication at the bottom of the list of the RELATIVE grades assigned to selected students.

Taylor
    I want to concentrate particularly on:
  1. Time to think. By giving your character time to think, you created a much better sense of rhythm. Excellent!
  2. Emotional variety. You found some emotional variety, but still not as much as you might have found

  3. (Your pantomime was still good, and you were much more familiar with the words this time.)

James
    I want to concentrate particularly on:
  1. Making it clear that I'm "rehearsing" the speech and Lucy isn't there. You did a good job of making it clear that you were "rehearsing" the speech and Lucy wasn't there.
  2. Eliminating nervous movements by adding action. You did a good job of eliminating nervous movements by adding action.

  3. (You found the shape of the piece more clearly this time, although you still have not really found the necessary anger or other strong emotion that would make you take the risk of speaking to Lucy this way.)

Anna
    I want to concentrate particularly on:
  1. Eye contact. You made some more eye contact with your audience, but you still need more.
  2. Pauses. You didn’t really add much in the way of pauses.

  3. (You did improve the emotional shape of the piece, and your vocal expression was still very good.)

Gannon
    I want to concentrate particularly on:
  1. Movement. Your movements were clearly planned better, although you still need to execute your plans with more clarity.
  2. Shape. You did an excellent job of finding the emotional shape of the piece.

  3. (You also controlled your nervous movements and maintained the excellent character you gave us the first time around.)

Anne
    I want to concentrate particularly on:
  1. Rushing. You started out still rushing but you got control of it by the end.
  2. Pauses. Your pauses were excellent--much improved.

  3. (Your body language and eye contact were somewhat better, but you still didn't find much emotional shape.)

Ruth
    I want to concentrate particularly on:
  1. Finding variety in my movements and gestures. You did a pretty good job of finding variety in your movements and gestures.
  2. Slowing down at places and speeding up at others. (Rhythm.) Your rhythm was much improved, though you could still do more.
    (You also maintained your excellent body language and character, and your strong storytelling. This was an excellent performance.)


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Grading

Below are some selected entries from the class, with indications (in italics) about the grade assigned and why. I've tried to provide a cross-section of the class.

EXCELLENT GRADE:

Forrest
    I want to concentrate particularly on:
  1. Making pauses bigger. You did an excellent job of making pauses bigger.
  2. Making the shape bigger. You did an excellent job of making the shape bigger.
(You also maintained the strength of the rest of your performance.)
     
This student, in company with the one below, received the highest grade in the class, because he took what I thought was one of the best performances in the class the first time around, and improved it significantly in the ways on which he chose to focus. This student, however, would have been easy to grade in any case, since it was obvious to everyone that his final performance was the best in the class. The student below provides a more subtle example.
EXCELLENT GRADE: Theresa
    I want to concentrate particularly on:
  1. Shape (emotions and jokes). You did an excellent job of finding the emotional shape and of punching the jokes.
  2. Rhythm (by pausing). You did a really excellent job of giving the piece rhythm by pausing.

  3. (This piece was quite good the first time around, yet you have improved it!)
     

In my opinion, this student's initial performance was neither remarkably strong nor remarkably weak. It was, in fact, what in another grading mode I would probably have to call "fair" and award a "B." Her final performance was by no means the best in the class. However, the IMPROVEMENT was at least as strong as in the above example, and she received the same very high grade. It is really wonderful to be able to grade the PROCESS, rather than the product.
AVERAGE GRADE: Sasha
    I want to concentrate particularly on:
  1. Going slowly. You were still rushing a bit, but not as much as before.
  2. Movement to show I am falling. You made some changes to indicate that you were falling, but they were not very clear yet.
      1.  
    (You found some good places to pause, and you character was better than ever. You didn't improve very much in the areas you chose to concentrate on, but this was still a very good performance.)
     
This student received a grade about in the middle. She did improve her performance along the lines on which she chose to concentrate, but not significantly. However, she also improved some other aspects of her performance, which brought her grade up.
POOR GRADE: Brent
    I want to concentrate particularly on:
  1. Making eye contact with audience. You still didn't really make eye contact with audience.
  2. Really seeing Lucy. We still did not feel you were really seeing Lucy.

  3. (Your movement choices were still pretty good, but you didn't really improve in any way over your initial performance.)
     

In my opinion, this student's "first draft" performance was by no means the worst in the class, and in fact his final performance was better than some others' final performances. However, he got the lowest grade in the class on this assignment because he did not improve between first and second performances. Furthermore, it was clear to me that this was because he hadn't worked on his performance much if at all betweentimes. For this reason, I see him as a strong example of why this approach to grading is a good one. It would have been unproductive to give him a better grade for something that had come without work. The very reason the arts are so attractive to me, and the reason I think they're important in education, is that there is no ceiling and no perfection. EVERYONE can improve and grow. But giving a student a bad grade for "effort" is equally problematic, since though I may believe lack of effort is at the back of a performance, I can't prove it. However, by setting up what are essentially objective criteria for evaluation--and criteria chosen by the student himself--I was able to fairly evaluate the WORK he did on the project, rather than simply the "quality" of the final product.
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Analysis

Grading these projects in this way made evaluation much easier, and, in my view, more fair, but it also had a partly unexpected additional benefit. As a class this group improved significantly more than previous classes did on the same assignment. I attribute this to two facts:

First, each student was provided with specific goals to work towards, and (this is MOST important) they were guaranteed to be goals the student understood and believed in, because they were goals chosen by the student. It is very difficult for a student (especially on who is already pretty good) to improve a creative project without a very clear focus. The model I grew up with--the way teachers worked with me and the way I have seen other teachers work--tends to work fairly well with students whose performances "still need a lot of work," but with students who are already "pretty good" (and these are, after all, usually the students most interested in the subject) it's ineffective, and tends to reduce itself down to "do more of what you're already doing." One of the most gratifying things about this project was that it allowed everyone--even the best students--to improve significantly.

Second, this evaluation scheme acknowledges, and to a large extent addresses, the central contradiction in any attempt to grade creative work. It respects the student as artist. Instead of grading the student on the basis of how I would have performed the monologue--and let's face it, that's what we tend to do when we evaluate creative work--this method grades the student on the basis of his or her own creative intent. By giving the students ownership of their own creative work, and of the evaluation process, I was able to give them a significant extra motivator to improve. They enjoyed the project more, it meant more to them, so they worked harder at it.

I was very pleased with the way Artist-Centered Evaluation worked with my sixth-graders, both in terms of fairness of grading and in terms of the quality of the work it induced. I'll certainly continue to use this technique in this class.

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