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Fashion Education's Complicated Relationship With Grading

By Jackie Mallon

Apr 15, 2018


This last stretch of the spring semester finds some students beginning to sweat over how to raise their final grade, while their instructors send urgent follow-up emails reminding them that their performance so far hasn’t been up to standard. Both parties are strategizing, arming themselves for the prospect of conflict ahead.

Being a design professor instructing the next generation to work within our creative field comes with an ever-increasing list of responsibilities. There are the overarching macro challenges that the next wave of talent is tasked with such as reflecting inclusivity and diversity in their work, and addressing issues of sustainability. when grading, it is the micro which tends to preoccupy instructors acutely aware that there are too many fashion graduates and not enough job opportunities to accommodate them all. Certain scores are more easily calculated than others, testing students on their awareness of the market, price points, competitors, stores in which their product might retail. But how to score creativity? What is the future of fashion? How unique is a designer’s point of view? These are the agonizing questions that might make an instructor of fashion envy those who teach languages or mathematics, subjects in which right and wrong answers appear more clearly defined. One plus one equals two, but in fashion we might ask if the student in her approach to pattern cutting or draping can find a way to make one plus one equal three. Why? Because it hasn’t been done before, of course.

Student teacher privilege

For the most part it is a privilege to be immersed in youthful creativity, engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the creators of tomorrow, on a joint expedition in pursuit of originality. But grading is when the dialogue becomes very one-sided. What the professor says goes is the general thinking. However grading is not always so clean-cut despite how transparent I might attempt to make the syllabus and criteria. Some students believe they can negotiate or bargain for a better last-minute deal, looking for hairline cracks in the most monolithic rubric. I have awarded top grades to students who have worked diligently and submitted everything asked of them, yet I won’t remember them or their work beyond the semester because in the grand scheme of things they were forgettable. I have given mediocre or poor grades to students whose point of view was special, who exhibited moments of pure brilliance, who were eager and curious, but who didn’t get everything together by deadline. Yet they have remained in my mind. And it is not always the A+ student whom I would recommend for a job.

I’ve read that millennials, with their inherent sense of entitlement, are obsessed with grades, snowflakes looking for gold stars, but in less cases than expected I’ve found this to be true. Those who do obsess tend to be the students who fear failure, lapsing gently into a coma of formulas over experimentation, thus sacrificing any opportunity for growth. They choose performance goals over learning goals not realizing that a future employer will never ask what grade they earned in their Design Studio II class. Ultimately it is the uniqueness of their graduate portfolio along with the internships on their resume that are the criteria the industry will use to evaluate them as potential hires. In my experience the majority of students respond to being pushed out on a limb. But a wider understanding must be in place: risk taking can simultaneously drag down your grade point average while elevating your standing in an instructor’s estimations. But in these times of school fees spiraling skywards, the pressure for students to succeed can choke this budding creativity, and parents can undermine the learning experience further by equating top grades with the value of the education they’re shelling out for: A+ means they’re getting the most bang for their buck. Then there are the bragging rights associated with having a child who is an A student.

Students grading instructors

In a transactional role reversal, instructors are also graded by the students. While student reviews are designed as an opportunity to let the school know what works and what doesn’t in an end-of-semester survey ( the student must circle responses to a list of statements with options from Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree and space for additional comment underneath) covering everything from facilities to faculty, some students can see it as an opportunity to lash out personally at an instructor who has given them a poor grade. Multiple poor reviews mean the instructor will be taken to task. It looms as a threat over every instructor’s performance and can even tinge the student/instructor collaboration with something akin to bribery. I often wonder how those professors of our youth who we recall with fond respect for being brutally direct in their criticism, “tough but fair,” but “hard graders” would fare under today’s system.

Grade-obsessed students will inwardly reason that a path of least resistance which guarantees a good grade is the smartest option all round. Their focus is on short term goals which avoid challenges. But what of the student who has demonstrated significant personal progress throughout the semester but still has a ways to go? Those are usually the ones that make an instructor’s work especially gratifying. Does reducing their progress to a letter or number inhibit their motivation to continue? Meaningful involvement with a subject, and an unconventional approach over superficial memorized methods, will bring about industry change-makers of the future. But they might not merit an A.

An alternative to grading

There have been movements to abolish the grading system amid criticisms of it being outdated and not conducive to getting the best out of our young people. But traditional grading of A through F is still deeply entrenched in our education system although a general Pass/Fail award exists in some programs. Education expert Alfie Kohn who Time magazine describes as “perhaps the country’s most outspoken critic of education’s fixation on grades [and] test scores,” describes grades in his book “Punished By Rewards” as “relics from a less enlightened era.” Even back in 1969, a group of Law students at Harvard published a report in which they argued that, “Grades create a status hierarchy with few winners, but many losers. The current procedures are unjustifiable at a time when the school is attracting so many highly-motivated, well-qualified students. As the ones who stand to lose by this system, we want to see it changed before we experience the unhappy effects of it.” Here we are half a century later living through a period in which all of our past methods and customs are being scrutinized. As fashion schools attract more creative talent than ever before, one question appears more urgent than ever: Is it time for an upgrade to grading?

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Photos author’s own