Sticky moments with a critical mass

April 11, 2003

Left in the lurch with more than 100 first and third-year design students, Jonathan Baldwin was forced to think on his feet. The result was a whole new take on assessment

As a fairly green graphic design lecturer straight from ten years in industry, I was unhappy to discover that traditional teaching methods, such as the critique, one-to-one conversations and studio cruising, had become distorted by a dramatic increase in class size.

Small group crits, for example, meant a few students being seen while the rest sat around - bored with not being taught, angry at the constant schedule overruns, unable to use the studio because it was occupied.

Unsurprisingly, they voted with their feet and went home. Added to that, two members of staff directed students guru-like in ways that were neither particularly effective nor made good use of their time and expertise.

Something had to be done.

One morning, both colleagues called in sick with flu. At first, I was panic-stricken. Against all odds, two large year groups - first and third-year - had turned up in their entirety. Just me and 100 students. The third-years were due for an interim crit and had been busy preparing. The brief had called on them to produce an advertising campaign aimed at 18-to-25-year-olds. However, instead of considering the social and cultural aspects of the target audience and exploring ways of making them respond to a message, as the module required, the students had focused on satisfying the taste of the assessor, a huge fan of type and modernism.

Meanwhile, the first-years had reached that point in the course where they start to flag. Unlike one colleague, ever ready to blame "idle" students, I knew the fault was ours: we were keeping them in the dark about how they were progressing. They needed a little glimpse into the future to help them fit everything into place and boost their motivation. An idea began to form.

Fortunately, both year groups knew each other well thanks to a mentoring scheme I had introduced in which third-years "looked after" first-years. It had resulted in some great social interactions and even pastoral care. So, when I told the third-years they were going to be evaluated by the first-years, they were surprised, but enthusiastic. Having only just decided to do it, I was less so. I formed the first-years into groups of five and armed them with Post-it notes. As each third-year team presented, they were to write down at least three positive comments, three constructive criticisms and three questions for the team. They were to think like 18-to-25-year-olds, not like graphic design students. After each presentation, I allowed time for discussion, then asked for comments and encouraged the presenters to seek clarification. As expected, comments focused on the ideas and why they would or would not work. Few commented on the visuals except to say they were not to their taste. This contrasted with usual tutor remarks about technical aspects such as "making things look nice", as one student put it.

The third-years began to realise that their visually attractive pieces were not very effective. But rather than being upset, they asked why. It was like a traditional crit in reverse. Despite being the only member of staff there, it was probably the easiest day of my career. After each team had finished, they collected in the Post-its to look at later. In this way, first-years who felt uncomfortable speaking out were able to make anonymous comments.

It was a long day - but the buzz in that crowded, sticky room was intense, and, importantly, not one student had sloped off despite several breaks and a lunch hour. At 5pm, most students carried on to the bar, where the conversations continued about design and its effectiveness. The sight of students working hard over a burger and a beer is one to behold. One team completely revamped its ideas using the available first-years as critics, and many of the first-years were asking excited questions about what the next two years held for them.

At the end of the year, while going through third-year portfolios prior to the external examiner's visit, I found that almost all of them contained fully annotated photocopies of the first-years' Post-it notes. It seemed the experiment had worked. By popular demand, several more fully attended mixed sessions of different formats took place in the following months, with students working together to great effect. My colleagues, meanwhile, returned to the good old tutor-led crit. No way could students teach each other, they said, particularly if they could not even be bothered to show up.

Jonathan Baldwin is academic developer with the art, design and communication subject centre, based at the University of Brighton and operating in partnership with the universities of Coventry and Ulster.

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