Until Art Is Objective, Design Courses Shouldn’t Be Graded

Masks made and designed by students in a design class in the American University in Dubai on February 11 2020. The masks are made from plaster that are cut into rectangular pieces and dipped in water. The students then place the pieces on their faces in three layers, until the material dries and hardens, and becomes a mask that is taken off. Mais Othman.

Whether it be engineering students designing mechanical parts and roads on AutoCAD, visual communication students designing websites, packaging, and brochures on Illustrator and Photoshop, interior design and architecture students designing floor and ceiling plans, sections, and elevation on AutoCAD, or media students designing newsletters, websites, and magazines on Illustrator and Photoshop, design courses are taken by students of almost all majors in AUD at some point during their studies. 

These courses are graded numerically; however, I believe this should change, and that design courses should be pass or fail courses, where if one shows an understanding of the rules of design, acquires design skills, and completes projects in a timely manner, then he or she passes, and if not, then fails the course. Numerical grades can still be used within the course to measure students’ performances in class and push them to improve, but the end result of these grades would determine if a student passes or fails the course.

As a journalism student, I had to take a design course that taught me how to use Photoshop and Illustrator, and from that experience, I realized that grading designs isn’t the same as grading, for example, a written piece that has to follow clear rules in grammar, punctuation, and word choice. Visual art, although it has its principles and theories of design, will always be too subjective to measure numerically, even with a rubric. 

Many students, like Hossam Abouelseoud, an AUD Digital Media student, also believes that designs cannot be numerically graded completely objectively. 

“Design courses shouldn’t be graded numerically, but instead be pass or fail courses, so that gives the idea to students that the effort is necessary, and certain techniques must be done to pass,” says Mr. Abouelseoud in an interview. “Designs can be subjective when liking one color more than another for example, but objectively, if you don’t get the proportions of a person right, it’s not successful as an art piece, so it is open-ended.” 

However, many professors, such as Ms. Serena Abou Daher, Assistant Professor of Digital Media in AUD, disagree with this. She believes that there is a degree of subjectivity in measuring visual art, but by using certain grading techniques, she can objectively measure a students’ skills and work.

“The way I grade students in computer graphics is with a project brief and rubric, where I state that I give 25% for technical execution, 20% for technical skills, and so on, so if I see skills half to what I taught, I need to put a number on that, because if I fail that student, then it means that I failed the whole thing, and this student did not understand completely. If I pass the student, then that means that the student knows everything and is perfect,” says Ms. Abou Daher in an interview. “With a pass in this case, there wouldn’t be potential to learn more, and students will stay on the same level, not go higher. I need to be descriptive in grading to show what students’ weaknesses and strengths are.” 

Ms. Laura Bakalka, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design, expresses that grading techniques differ between instructors, and that some of them grade in one quick process, and others, like her, grade four times. 

“Design is subjective, although we argue it should be objective, so for some assessments, we get an external examiner, like someone from engineering, who might not understand anything from design, and ask him or her which design is more successful, and communicates effectively,” states Ms. Bakalka in an interview.

In short, I believe that when comparing grading writing courses with design courses, writing can always be looked at objectively, and has rules in grammar and punctuation that can never be broken. However, with design, one is even taught that, if he or she knows the rules of design, then these rules may be broken for a specific purpose and meaning. At the end of the day, art is about meaning, beauty, and expression, and that goes beyond any form of complete objectivity.

Edited by: Raseel Amro


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