Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Evaluating Assignments

In my previous “Notes from the VisCom Classroom,” I wrote about crafting course assignments and making sure they furthered both school-wide and course-specific learning outcomes. In this column, I’ll discuss how I go about evaluating those assignments once the students turn in their work.

I believe setting learning outcomes and evaluating student work are among the most important things I do as a teacher. When I craft an assignment, I try to make it as clear as possible what I want the student to accomplish and how I will evaluate their work.

To help me do this, I use a grading matrix, which lists all the assignment’s learning outcomes. The actual assignment the students receive contains general information about the assignment along with the learning outcomes.

What’s the Assignment?

For example, the first assignment in my Advanced Photovisual Communications course here at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications is to have my students make a natural-light portrait. Because I have a professional-photography background, I craft the assignments for this course as if they came from an editor or an art director.

Here’s what I wrote for the first assignment:

There are many ways professional photographers light their photographs of people. Among the most common are natural light (daylight), tungsten light (household light bulbs, flood lamps, hot lights), and flash. This assignment is designed to give you experience in lighting people using natural light. Please read the assignment carefully so you will know what you need to do.

You have been hired to help illustrate a chapter in a new photography book, Photographing People: The Professionals’ Approach. Your chapter is called “Finding the Right Light.” Your assignment is to provide a photograph for the section on using natural light to photograph people. Your editor (that would be me) wants a beautiful, creative, dramatic, provocative, compelling, absorbing image for the book. In other words, no snapshots, no mug shots, no driver’s-license photos. And above all, absolutely no photographs outside on a sunny day between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.!

I then reminded them which chapters to read in our textbook (Ken Kobré’s Photojournalism: The Professionals’ Approach), advised them to match the type of lighting to their subject, and urged them to use a variety of camera angles, focal lengths, compositions, and exposures to make sure they have enough good shots to choose from.

Evaluate the Assignment

So how did I go about evaluating this assignment? My grading matrix has eight rows that represent the learning outcomes for this assignment; the matrix also has four columns, numbered 4, 3, 2, and 1. Here’s an example of the first learning outcome:

photography assignments

Obviously, it is crucial that the students read and understand the assignment in all its details before attempting to make their photographs. That is why I always go over the assignment in class and ask for any questions.

Sometimes tunnel-vision takes hold, and in their rush to complete the assignment a few students overlook a key element. You need to spell out everything and clear up all uncertainties — just as you would if you were an editor or art director assigning a project to a professional photographer.

In addition to understanding the assignment requirements, here are the other seven learning outcomes:

  • Understand the effect of lighting on the subject matter of photographs and their visual impact.
  • Understand the importance of putting subjects at ease and picking appropriate settings, background, props, and wardrobe.
  • Understand the effect of composition on the subject matter of photographs and their visual impact.
  • Understand the importance of making an emotional impact on the viewer — what my colleague Dr. Keith Kenney calls “the wow factor.”
  • Understand Photoshop controls for brightness, contrast, color balance, and cropping.
  • Understand technical flaws, such as poor focus, camera shake, exposure problems, etc.
  • Understand resolution, file size, file naming, and file formats.

Because this is a lighting assignment, I obviously place great weight on the learning outcome involving lighting — the assignment tells students to “strive for lighting that greatly enhances the subject matter of your photographs and their visual impact.” In fact, when I create the grading matrix, I highlight this row, which represents the assignment theme.

So when it comes time to evaluate my students’ work, it’s no surprise that photographs that show the most creative and appropriate lighting will achieve the highest marks in this category. I also place significant weight on whether the subject looks comfortable or ill at ease, and whether the photographer has paid sufficient attention to important details such as background, props, etc.

The same is true for composition and emotional impact — deficiencies in either of these areas can cause a viewer to skip your image and move on to one of the many other visuals vying for attention in our visually saturated world.

Assign a Grade

Finally, it’s time to assign a grade for the assignment. For all the courses I teach, I use numerical, rather than letter, grades for assignments. The only time students receive a letter grade from me is for their final course grade. I find the numerical system has three advantages:

  • It helps me be more objective in my grading.
  • It helps students respond to grades more objectively, in part by removing the stigma associated with letter grades other than A — for example, a C in our school represents average work, but many students view a C as equivalent to an F.
  • It helps eliminate confusion — you don’t have to define a numerical value for each letter grade if you are calculating grades mathematically.

For photography assignments, I use a 10-point scale with half-point steps. In my syllabus, I explain that a 10 represents flawless work, a 9.5 is excellent, a 9 is very good, an 8.5 is good, etc.

After I have filled out a grading matrix for each photograph, it becomes a relatively simple task to assign a numerical grade for the assignment. If a student has received the highest mark (4) in all categories, they get a 10 for the assignment. If they get mostly 4s and only one or two 3s, they get a 9.5. A few more 3s and their grade is a 9. A solid column of 3s translates into an 8.5 and so forth.

Finally, I try to make sure the students understand that I am grading the work they submitted — I am not grading them personally, and I am not making a judgment about their photographic or artistic abilities. My goal is to help them improve their photography to become better visual communicators, and also to enable them to create portfolio-worthy images that will stand them in good stead when they enter the work-a-day world.

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