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Published by the Learning and Teaching Unit
Winter 2003
ISSN 1477-1241
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Vol 2 Issue 1: Assessment

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Rachel Forsyth

The Concept of Plagiarism
Bill Johnston

Plagiarism Detection Software - a new JISC service
Rachel Forsyth

Can students assess students effectively? Some insights into peer-assessment
A. Mark Langan and and C. Philip Wheater

Exploring the potential of Multiple-Choice Questions in Assessment
Edwina Higgins and Laura Tatham

Developing a new assessment strategy
Gaynor Lea-Greenwood

Assessing the Un-assessable
Tim Dunbar

How to assess disabled students without breaking the law
Mike Wray

Returning Feedback to Students via Email Using Electronic Feedback 9
Phil Denton

Tools for Computer-Aided Assessment
Alan Fielding and Enid Bingham

Faculty Learning and Teaching Reports

Learning and Teaching News from the Library

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photo of Tim Dunbar

Tim Dunbar,
School of Art and Design

Assessing the Un-assessable

Reflections on how we make qualitative judgments within the summative assessment of the products of contemporary creative practice

Assessment is a matter of judgment, not simply computation. Marks, grades and percentages are not absolute values but symbols used by examiners to communicate their judgment of different aspects of a students work in order to provide information on which the final decision on a student’s fulfilment of course objectives may be based. Thus, in determining the final recommendation to be made in respect of a student, the Board of Examiners shall take into account such matters as in its judgement are relevant.(1)


Reading through drafts of this account, it became apparent that I had made too many assumptions for an audience which may be unfamiliar with the context. The approach to assessment I speculate about, and attempt to describe through a semi-theorised model based on a semi-fictional case study, is firmly located in a very particular academic and cultural territory. Contemporary fine art practice is defined by a sense of the post modern in which master narratives and ideological strongholds are debated and often subverted. As a consequence our role as academics can often be brought into question. Clearly, this is not always the case, and there are many instances of traditional practices in fine art in which the judgemental in assessment is grounded in qualitative decisions informed by notions of levels of skill, technical competence and understanding of an appropriate knowledge base. But in this case I have chosen to explore the extreme end of product-based assessment, with the hope that it will raise questions about the nature and purpose of assessment which have an equal sense of the extreme.


I am currently Senior Learning and Teaching Fellow in the Faculty of Art and Design. Before this I was Course Leader of BA (Hons) Fine Art. I have been involved in the operational organisation of Fine Art / Visual Arts programmes for about fifteen years and I am currently External Examiner /Adviser at a number of institutions for both undergraduate and postgraduate courses in Fine Art / Visual Arts.

As part of my SLTF role in the Faculty I am involved with the process of implementing the Regulations for Undergraduate Programmes of Study and I have been working with programme teams – especially the Fine Art team - in the processes of evolving assessment practices. While preparing for one of these sessions I began to reflect on the problems we encounter as practitioners (both academic and creative) in the activity of assessment. Essentially my concern became focussed on how we might retain the integrity of the contemporary artwork – in the sense of an object or process which might explicitly contest the nature of institutional structures – while operating judgmentally within a regulatory framework. The implications of this dilemma were debated at this assessment event (and undoubtedly in many similar events across the country) and through these ongoing discussions I began to develop a sense of a possible methodological procedure for assessment which, it seemed to me, would be grounded in a robust and transparent evaluative process while maintaining the distinctive operations (possibly subversive aspirations) of the artworks under scrutiny.

To further debates around this problematic area and to test out my proposed methodological procedure I want to undertake a kind of crude case study, but a case study based on a fictitious (or almost fictitious) scenario regarding the submission of a provocative artwork by a final year undergraduate Fine Art student as part of a summative exhibition of work and the consequent assessment strategies brought into play by the programme team.

Setting the Scene

I want to describe the artwork under scrutiny for assessment. The work has been made as the Final Exhibition piece which is the culmination of the final Unit of an undergraduate Fine Art award. Once assessed the artwork will form a part of the public exhibition of student work from that year.

The student's work over the course of her third year had been concerned with concepts of extremism in visual arts practice and feedback from an earlier assessment suggested that while work produced was fully endorsed by staff, it was indicated that there was a cautionary quality to the work and it avoided real risk taking. The student’s studio practice had been supported by a dissertation entitled: The Horror! The Horror! - Moral Extremity in cultural practices in the late twentieth century. The development of the work over the period of the final Unit was exhausting for the student as ideas were tested through a number of events and productions. These were for the most part considered to be melodramatic and rather simplistic. But by the end of the Unit the student was able to put together an art work which she felt confident about and which fully demonstrated her aspirations and concerns.

The art work itself was made up of two spaces connected by a doorway. We entered into the first space to be confronted by the space of the doorway which was covered by a kind of curtain. Thus first space was dark, the only illumination being a single unshaded bulb which hung from the ceiling to one side of the space and seemed to move slowly as if being blown by a slight breeze. (It was, in fact moved by an unseen mechanical system). Through the doorway was a much darker space. There was no source of light in this second chamber but there was a strong sensation emanating from it. In fact this space had been refrigerated and a slightly misty chill spread outwards through the doorway. This inner space also contained a noise, at first indiscernible but gradually it became clear that it was the sound of a young child crying. This whimpering progressively increased in volume until it reached a crescendo when the sobbing turned into an excruciating scream of pain. There was then silence and the progressive build up of sound was repeated. We were prevented from entering the inner space by this curtain which was hung across the doorway. The curtain was made up of about six vertical strands each one of which seemed to move slowly highlighted by the eerie, expressionist lighting. It was difficult to identify the cause of this movement until we moved closer to the curtain. Then, when we were about eighteen inches from the doorway, it became clear. Each of the vertical strands was made up of a mixture of writhing animal forms. each one attached in some way to the strand. Frogs and toads were attached by velvet cords, snakes were wrapped around and then pinned together and occasionally lizards and newts were hung by their tails. The vertical forms of the curtain slowly twisted and stretched in slow, hypnotic rhythmic movement which was at the same time beautifully balletic but absolutely repulsive.

Assumptions and Points of Reference

In this fictional case study, the fictitious element - the artwork under scrutiny for assessment - has been described. The judgemental process of assessment to be described is, however, not a fiction, but is based more or less directly on the existing assessment regime of BA (Hons) Fine Art. Before I enter into detailed description of this regime and its operational characteristics, there are a number of basic assumptions and points of reference which need to be outlined so as to provide a more complete picture of the context for assessment. These are:

  • the artwork submitted for assessment (as described) has been approved by both University Health and Safety representatives and by the Faculty Ethical Standards Committee;
  • both the student and all staff involved with assessment are fully aware of and operate within the terms of reference of the assessment procedures as described in Programme documentation and the University Regulatory Framework for Undergraduate Programmes of Study;
  • the assessment structure and process has been informed by reference to the Faculty of Art and Design Learning Outcomes / Level Descriptor Tool Kit, produced by Faculty Centre for Learning and Teaching following scrutiny of QAA National Qualifications Framework and Art and Design Subject Benchmark Statement;
  • the student has completed all of the supporting documentation required for assessment:
    Learning Agreement - initial outline of concerns and self evaluative commentary
    Reflective Critical Journal - as a means of documenting and monitoring the working and thinking processes associated with the development of the artwork.

Establishing an Intertextual Space for Assessment

... any particular construction of a set of intertextual relations is limited and relative - not to the reading subject but to the interpretative grid (the regime of reading) through which both the subject position and the textual relations are constituted. (2)

A work can only be read in connection with or against other texts, which provide a grid through which enables one to pick out salient features and give them a structure. (3)

I want to focus attention on the judgmental process of assessment and the ways in which these decisions are informed and directed by external factors - external, that is, to the direct experience of the artwork. I want to suggest that these judgemental decisions which lie at the heart of any assessment process should be positioned within an intertextual grid. The position of the viewer/assessor should be located at the centre of the grid so that the actuality of the experience of the artwork remains pivotal to the act of assessment but responsive to and interconnected with the range and complexity of factors which secure the reliability and transparency of an assessment process.

I want to try to provide a sense of how these elements generate an intertextual space-time grid within which the judgemental activity of assessment of the described artwork can be located. The following list describes the key elements of this assessment grid but in a linear manner. The actual form of the grid/network is more of an organic tracing of connections and alternating points of intensity or priority. A visual depiction of an assessment grid would be more like a fluid matrix of fixed positions with an ever-changing pattern of connecting passages.

The direct, fully engaged experience of the artwork creates the basis of an interactive dialogue entered into by the viewer/assessor generating a grid like structure within / through which reference can be made to other elements, beyond the physical/temporal domain of the product, both internally within the creative process itself and externally to regulatory guidelines and criteria which, when positioned together form this grid/matrix/network


These are the processes which are integral to the creative and reflective practices of the student:

Tutorial Discourse ongoing studio tutorial discussion intended to maintain and extend a critically informed discursive space for the development of a student’s creative practice
Learning Agreement

the vehicle through which a student negotiates a direction for their practice which is then articulated in the form of an Outline of Concerns and which is critically evaluated on completion of the Unit

  • the Learning Agreement should create a sense of a contextual framework for the resultant artwork and the associated developmental processes
  • the Learning Agreement should allow the student to develop individualised Learning Outcomes that are referenced to Unit and Level Learning Outcomes
Critical Journal the Critical Journal (often referred to as a Reflective Archive) takes the form of a combination of sketchbook / notebook / scrapbook / diary / research file / personal journal and collectively generates a discursive space for the students practice by reference to a critical engagement with personal reflections on contemporary and historical debates, cultural positions/institutional forms, cultural experiences and critical reflection on the evolution of the students own practice



These are the references which inform and objectify the position of the viewer/assessor within the assessment process

Level Descriptors
(as Learning Outcomes)

typical Level Descriptors (as Learning Outcomes) for Level Three are:

  • demonstration of the capacity for self directed studio practice
  • challenge, evaluate and adapt learning strategies appropriate to the realisation of personal goals
  • show critical awareness of the theories and debates that inform personal development on the wider evolution of contemporary visual culture
  • open-mindedly formulate informed responses to support their practice and individual position on issues relevant to the subject of fine art and its position in contemporary culture
Unit Learning Outcomes

Unit Learning Outcomes for the Unit for which this artwork was produced include:

  • demonstrate an imaginative approach to the generation of ideas and problem resolution in relation to self initiated projects
  • fluently exploit the range of methods, materials and technologies available for the expression of concepts in fine art
Assessment Criteria

Assessment Criteria are used on the programme to inform the making of judgements of the level of achievement of declared Learning Outcomes. Learning Outcomes may be those explicitly stated in Unit/Level Descriptors or referenced more individually through Learning Agreements. Assessment Criteria referenced in this way are:

Subject Specific
Achievement in studio practice as demonstrated by overall quality of work
Competence and confidence in selection and handling of materials, media and processes
Awareness of the possibilities of selected area of practice
Understanding of historical and contemporary developments in visual arts and culture

Imaginative and creative responsiveness to problems
Evidence of informed critical reflection
Formation of individual opinion and standpoints

Levels of studentship with regard to attandance, engagement with the course and responsiveness to tutorial discussion
Capacity to articulate ideas in both written and verbal forms


We might consider the judgemental and advisory processes undertaken as part of what I have called internal to the creative process as having the qualities of formative assessment, while the attributes of external references suggest a closer connection to summatively based assessment. The interpenetrative qualities of one with the other are a distinctive feature of the assessment process I am attempting to describe.

Summary of Key Issues

When we attempt to disentangle the complexity of an assessment strategy of this kind we inevitably encounter problems associated with modelling the process. I have attempted to approach these problems in two ways.

Firstly, in a visual way trying to explore and present the intricacies of an assessment intertextual grid/network through different forms of diagrammatic modelling/drawing. I have included an example here of a visual model which diagrammatically describes the elements of the grid/matrix/network and implicates its dynamics.

Secondly, I have introduced issues associated with the judgemental in product-based assessment into our ongoing debates within the Faculty Centre for Learning and Teaching.

There seem to be two key issues:

  • A reconsideration of the traditional duality between the subjective and the objective in the processes of assessment;
  • A reappraisal of the relationship between process and product in product-based assessment;

Emerging from my theoretical model are a number of other issues which raise difficult and challenging questions:

• an understanding of the concept of viewer/assessor - recognising the implicit duality of the concept and the way it could be seen to mirror a notion of creative practitioner / academic practitioner which has implications for approaches to research and scholarly activity;

• the need to develop a means of testing the ways in which our functioning as viewers (as informed researcher/practitioner) of the artwork is affected by our awareness of and responsibility to regulatory principles and defined practices;

• the need to explore ways of repositioning the processes of judgemental assessment from an overly subjective or privileged standpoint towards a more transparent, democratised intertextual network;

• further clarification of the notion of the experiential in the site/space for assessment especially with regard to the regulatory constraints of an assessment framework - as in concepts of deadlines, definitions of required work and so on;

• as a work in progress it is important to consider ways of developing further the intertextual assessment grid/matrix operating as a dynamic system maybe considered as an assessment network or web


(1) Manchester Metropolitan University
Regulations for Undergraduate Programmes of Study 2002 - 2003

(2) Marxism and Literary History (1986)
John Frow

(3) Structuralist Poetics - Structuralism. Linguistics and the Study of Literature (1975)
Jonathan Culler

Tim Dunbar
Senior Learning and Teaching Fellow, Faculty of Art and Design
0161 247 3542

February 2003
ISSN 1477-1241

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