Assessing the Assessment: Grades at SAIC

January 30th, 2009

photo courtesy of Ed Uthman

Like many of us here at SAIC, I was first attracted to this school because of the interdisciplinary education, mind-blowing course catalog, and world-renown facilities. Prior to admittance to the MFAW program, I had mixed feelings about the possibility of being in a school that had Credit/No Credit as opposed to a more traditional letter grading system; coming from the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at NYU, where we did receive letter grades (and they often seemed arbitrary or superficial, especially in experimental classes), I was ultimately excited by the opportunity to work and grow in a school where my creative endeavors would be assessed through a more substantive system than numbers or letters on a transcript. As a member of the Writing Program who asked to be anonymous explained, “Not having grades means that the exchange between professors and students can be more democratic…This encourages more risk and more daring choices in the work itself…the problems are sometimes students have been trained to be motivated by grades so they may have to assign new investment incentives for their work.

This sentiment was echoed by several of the teachers and students I spoke with, as was Chair of the Photo Department Barbara DeGenevieve’s sentiment that, “the real world doesn’t give grades for doing what you’re supposed to do.” DeGenevieve added, “There will always be people around you who aren’t pulling their weight, but grades are a rather juvenile form of motivation and reward,”

The crux of the conundrum seems to be that while the majority of our 2,333 undergraduates and 602 grad students are incredibly passionate about their work, and it is often impossible to objectively assess art, there is also an undercurrent of laziness, a perceived lack of motivation, which undermines the experiences of those dedicated students who feel that it is unfair to receive the same grade as students who slack off and don’t even bother to show up to class. SAIC Student Betsy Yaros says, “The lack of grades fails…there is lack of motivation. I’ve met quite a few undergrads who are here on their parents’ money, are f–ing around, doing drugs, and producing crap. I think the grades may make people have to drop out sooner, and I wouldn’t mind if the lazy people left.”

This was reinforced by undergraduate student Aaron Greene, who in his first year at SAIC has already experienced a vast discrepancy between the quality of education and exchange of ideas in a class where he felt the teacher demanded a lot of the students, versus a class where it seemed like very little was required to pass the class. “Our grading system” Greene explained, “isn’t necessarily the reason, but I think teachers need to hold us to a higher standard, and from what I’ve seen, when teachers require more of us we step up to the plate…it’s discouraging to be in a class with people who aren’t putting in the same effort.”

“If you do better” asked Mike Genge, a second-year student in the Architecture and Designed Objects department, “shouldn’t you receive the affirming reinforcement of a good grade? One that would be better than the kid that drools while he sleeps during critiques?”

This issue is especially thorny when thinking about collaborative projects, where Nadine Bopp, adjunct professor in the AIADO and Liberal Arts departments explains, “there is often a backlash from those who excel and work diligently about those who slide by with the minimum or less than average work.”

Perhaps this is an issue inherent in all learning environments, especially in an interdisciplinary art school where conceptual, experimental thinking can at times have the unintended result of scattered interest rather than deeper learning and understanding. Alum Jack Bornoff, who received his MFA at SAIC in 1976, defends our grading system, saying, “Please keep in mind, SAIC has been named the number one art school in the United States for the past fifteen years and the most influential art school of the past decade.” But while there is no doubt about our student body’s potential for excellence, one does need to acknowledge that, according to some individuals I spoke with who have been involved with SAIC for several decades, things seem to be changing for the worse. Gregory Mowery, who first came to SAIC in 1977 as a grad student and now teaches in the Art+Tech department, praises the school’s incredible range of course offerings, range of ideas, and diversity of faculty, but acknowledges a recent shift in the student body’s overall commitment. “When I was in school” remembers Mowery, “it was too conceptual with not enough craft…I’ve noticed what seemed to be a sudden shift in what I perceived as a student failing (or my failing). Things I had been doing forever didn’t work anymore. [Previously] pass out a syllabus, make a schedule, and stuff would get done. [Recently] I would schedule a midterm and people wouldn’t even show up! It finally occurred to me that there was a profound generational shift. My generation thrived (or at least thought we did) on personal freedom…this generation multitasks but doesn’t synthesize well.”

If attendance is the very minimum required to pass—and from what I gathered in my interview process, teachers and students both seem to agree that credit at SAIC is about showing up, and it seems like it would take more effort to fail than to pass—then attendance guidelines need to be more strictly enforced, though, as Nadine Bopp explains, it is not always accepted when a professor decides that a student has not met the requirements to receive credit. “More recently,” explains Bopp, “I have had to give no credit. This is extremely difficult as the student fights you every step. They get their parents involved, department heads, administrators etc. Unless we can completely document every misstep of the student, it is often easier to cave than to fight over a prolonged period of time. However, depending on the student, some will acknowledge their mistakes and lack of effort and accept the NC.”

Perhaps a more nuanced assessment scale should be put into place, where at the beginning of each semester a student and teacher would work together to specifically map out a student’s intended goals for each course, with more opportunity throughout the semester for rigorous, thoughtful self-assessment. Raja Halwani, Chair of the Liberal Arts department, suggests a “more finessed system than the binary CR/NCR,” of high pass, pass, low pass, and no pass. Other suggestions include giving letter grades to each specific assignment and then mathematically calculating the student’s average at the end of the semester to see if he or she met the threshold for receiving credit, having different departments come up with different grading perimeters that would be tailored to their field, giving unofficial grades throughout the semester, and having more consistently rigorous critiques that challenge the students to assess how well they have met their goals for each project. Regardless of where this debate ultimately takes us, I think that we should all devote a few minutes at the start of this new semester to think about why we are here, what we want to accomplish, and how we will do it.

Join the debate by commenting on this article below.



Feb 9, 2009

Real life is all about deadlines, less about critique.
If a person was to produce all the work required for a class and not even show up.
It would be a waste of the persons personal time.
But with regards to the convention of reality, that they made the deadline would be all that was required from them.

A person could make it to all the classes, and still bluff their way with crappy art. On the other hand another person could have personal difficulties to surmount, and still get all their work in on time.

To have the basis for passing a student be restricted to simply showing up would be a huge disservice to anyone who thrives under difficult circumstances.

Address the work, not the person, cause if it was all about the person, I can think or many idiots who would never have gotten anywhere in life if they were not judged by the merits of their work.

Max Davidowitz
Feb 12, 2009

What is so bad about being “lazy?”
I didn’t know that tardiness and D-minus’s were directly related to intelligence, creativity, or passion for art? I feel that the schools philosophy should be directed towards showing students the way of the artist with classes and individual guidance. Having a more rigorous disciplinary code makes SAIC sound more like a private prep school than a college of Contemporary Art.

Feb 12, 2009

i feel like i’m a straight A student, and frankly i feel it’s about time i get the credit i deserve. it’s not that i don’t want to bring down other students, just, you know… also i want to get into grad school, so where are my As!??!!!

Feb 12, 2009

Lack of grades won’t prevent anyone from getting into grad school; poor work does that. In fact, many grad programs, like Yale, Stanford, Harvard and UC Berkeley Law, Viginia U Medicine, and many more, not to mention high powered undergrad programs (CalArts, MIT, Reed, SFAI, Brown, Bennington, Hampshire, UC Santa Cruz, Sarah Lawrence, St. John’s, and on and on) use no letter grade systems to assess student learning.

The bottom line for all assessment systems should be: How does this support sudent learning and development over time?

There is NO evidence that letter grade systems support student learning over time. In fact, there is some evidence that grading systems that sort and rank, as letter grade systems do, actually degrade the development of intrinsic motivation–learning for the joy of learning–in students.

That’s not to say we couldn’t do assessment better at SAIC. I think we should have some systematic form of narrative or written evaluation here, But that would require a change in many structures at the school (for example, “grades” couldn’t be turned in 24 hours after the last class–faculty would need plenty of time to write useful narratives for students). Check out how some other places assess student learning here: Consortium for Innovative Environments in Learning (

Feb 15, 2009

The change and criticism shell be seen not only from the criticism of grading system, but also through various approaches and considerations.

1. If the problem of non-grading system is for the students who lack of motivation like Betsy Yaros mentioned in above article then we shell begin ask
Is our student generally motivated? Who are getting admit? Is admission system effective on filtering not motivated students? What effects the student motivation? Is it solely on letter-grading? Or is it due to the class that generates the lack of motivation? Do students have enough time of add/drop period to decide if the class is really right for them? In what means students and instructor communicate on making the class as interesting and thus generating motivation?

2. Is the problem of non-grading also real matters to those of motivated students? How many students care about having a letter grading system?
Do the school have information of the need and wants of the whole students opinion to evaluate? What is the profession and future after graduating SAIC? What has it been in the past? Do students and the real world agree on our school’s philosophy of non-grading? In what means school effectively supports the student success and evaluation if other then the letter grade? How are students informed to the fact that “lack of grades won’t prevent anyone from getting into grad school” like Therese mentioned?

3. To add on to the discussion of what student thinks about the grading system, I personally, believe in the philosophy of non-grading system with the reasons well pointed out in the article. I think the result was originally installed after a long discussions on how to evaluate education of artist and designers.
Non-grading system shell continue to serve as one of the SAIC’s special remark as described at

Feb 16, 2009

I think some of the professors can get a little lazy when some students are slacking off and not pulling their share, but at the same time I don’t feel we need grades, at least not in studio classes. Art is so much about self motivation. You can really see the difference between the people that bust their butts for their art and those that slack off. In many critiques, people will see right through how lazy you are and bring it up if your work is thoughtless crap, just like in the real world. I find that way more motivating than any letter grade would ever be.

Feb 19, 2009

Only a small part of what I was said was mentioned in the article and it was after having to go through a very long crit of a guy’s work that he actually did the year before for another class and was turning it in again. There are a lot of positives to a pass/fail system. Students are more free to experiment with their artwork and do not have as much pressure to create work that the professor may like. Before I did go to the university where many students were making work that they did not really feel passionate about, but rather work that the professor would like and they knew would get them an A. I would like to get some sort of grade or rating on my work through the course of the semester, so then I would have a better idea if the professor thought. Passing is a large range from A to C-. I don’t think that these grades would need to be on the transcript, but rather just for my own personal knowledge so I could better judge how I am doing.

Feb 26, 2009

I am currently teaching in another school which has grades and it is harder to give grades. It definitely requires less effort on my part to have CR/NCR, although I am mindful that SAIC transcripts indicate that undergrads must get a C to get Credit and grads must get a B.

I get grades in the real world all the time. When I present a tour or lecture at a conference I get feedback, usually on a 5-point scale, which is equivalent to the traditional grading system. I also have had difficulty explaining our system to PhD programs looking at our grads. Neither of these two facts means our system is wrong. But we are in the minority and that means a lot of people don’t get it.

I think it would be valuable to have a “high pass” or some form of recognition for outstanding effort or accomplishment.

Grades are a form of assessment that can be tabulated, which is one reason they are used. It would seem in the modern networked technological world we can in fact tabulate or analyze much more complex, specific and appropriate forms of assessment. I am sure the portal could be configured so that faculty could enter several paragraphs assessing each student based on certain criteria appropriate to the various fields of study SAIC offers. They could probably even be tailored to specific classes. There are tools today that could summarize and anthologize those more individual, targeted assessments. I think that would be much more valuable for students than grades,

Mar 6, 2009

I believe the current system is defunct in the ability to formulate communication between students and faculty. Currently the bar is set so low whereas attendance (not functional attendance) is acceptable. Those students who strive to make important connections with the professional faculty and who desire to do more than just “survive” through the school, really suffer with the current system in place. I am personally exhausted of watching some students sit on their laptops all day long, fail to integrate with their classes, and even worse – don’t find it necessary to participate in critiques. This has made the classroom environment one of apathy rather than advocacy of Chicago as an art hub.

Perhaps either a better admittance process so only people who WANT to be a functional participant in the art world should be accepted, or an improved grading system put in place to weed out those who simply want to sit in a corner. Art is not something that should be created in a vacuum so why want to attend a great school but never want to be involved? Those who do participate and do get involved in the work being created deserve better grades than those who just “show up” for a grade.

Mar 11, 2009

I’m curious about if there has been a follow up from the president or the administrative board?

Also curious about how is the decision made on changing the grading system, do students get to discuss or vote about it?

Aug 31, 2010

I do get grades in real life all the time. As this issue came up yet again, I was mailed an evaluation form for a tour I gave at a conference. I got an A-.

As a teacher, I have worked at another school and had to give grades. That was more work for me.

I think Raja’s idea of high pass, pass, and no credit makes sense, because it is important to let the students who are really committed and involved know that they have accomplished something more.

Jan 17, 2011

I think the lesson is: Stop comparing yourself to other people on the basis of grades and credits. I praise the School for its credit system. Students who are more concerned with the academic prestige they can gain over their peers have missed the purpose of SAIC, which is to cultivate deep thinking and conceptually savvy artists, not valedictorians.

Developing an aesthetic is hard work, and what you end up with may not be favorable to the people supposed to be guiding you in its development. A standard grading system allows instructors (even if they don’t mean to) to penalize students whose vision doesn’t match theirs. The point of SAIC is that you SEE, not that you share a vision, and the credit/no credit system is best designed to handle this task.

As for collaborative efforts, the complaints here are not specific to this grading system; students everywhere, in every academic hierarchy, have long had to deal with the unmotivated and the uninspired. If anything, SAIC’s C/NC system should be seen as a boon. Whereas in other systems you can be (unfairly) docked for another’s laziness, at SAIC you are able to focus more on your own contributions than bringing others up to par.

Leave a Comment

Related Articles