Critiquing creative work with a growth mindset

I’m in the process of doing some large-scale writing about the way I teach music technology. To that end, I thought I would talk some about how I evaluate students’ creative work, both for grading purposes and during in-class critiques.

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The main thing I have students do in music tech class is make original music and lots of it. So the question immediately becomes, how do I even begin to objectively assess that stuff? 

The short answer is: I don’t. I grade for effort, in a very coarse-grained way. If the student completes the project, following all the guidelines and requirements, they get full credit, regardless of the quality of the resulting music. (My assignment guidelines are always technical in nature; I don’t put any restrictions on musical style.) If students don’t follow the guidelines and requirements, or hand the assignment in late, or obviously half-ass it, I deduct points accordingly. I don’t give any consideration to the music itself when grading because then I’d just be grading on how closely the student’s musical taste is to mine, which would be arbitrary and unfair.

I do give students my opinions on their music, during our in-class art-school-style critique sessions (and sometimes also as timed SoundCloud comments.) I consider this subjective group critique to be the actually valuable form of feedback. As a group, we listen to each person’s assignment and then talk about it. We try to figure out: is the track working for us? If not, why not? What was the musical goal? How successful was the student at attaining that goal? And most importantly, what can they do to build on what they have? I’m not so interested in figuring out whether the track is “good” or “bad.” Instead, I want to find out, given the student’s goal, how they could move closer to it.

My intro-level music tech classes usually include a wide range of production and songwriting abilities. Some students have never used a computer for any creative purpose whatsoever, while others are already accomplished bedroom producers or DJs. I get tracks that are complete, polished works of art, and tracks that are total shambles. So rather than try to compare these efforts to each other, I use a growth mindset. Whatever state the track is in, what will take it to the next level? If it’s a complete mess, what steps might begin to pull it together? If it’s a good idea that’s poorly executed, how could it be smoothed out? If it’s a promising fragment, how could it be developed into a full thought? If it’s a complete and polished track, could it have lyrics or another section or an alternative arrangement?

Sometimes the solution is obvious. Maybe the student has a clear goal in mind, and they just don’t know how to get there. Maybe they wanted to make a bumping club track, and the beats are weak–beginner producers usually don’t know how to layer or mix drums. A lot of the time, there are some good ideas but they’re strung together without any particular structure. That’s understandable; structure is hard! Or maybe there was a misguided attempt at “realism.” Every semester, someone takes a piece they composed or arranged and outputs audio straight from their notation software. The result consistently sounds like garbage. I want them to think of the sound coming out of the speakers as the “real” music, not a placeholder for an eventual performance by humans–nothing against live performance, but my class is about making music in the box. Rather than settling for terrible fake strings or brass, we try to figure out what software instruments might sound unapologetically cool.

A lot of the time, the student has no particular goal beyond “do this assignment.” So then the critique needs to get creative. I like to ask: if this track is a film or game score, what’s happening in the scene? Students have a lot of implicit knowledge in this area from their own media consumption, so I get wonderfully specific and unexpected answers to this, e.g. “It’s a bar fight in a domed underwater city.” Then we can figure out, how could the track more strongly convey the feeling of a bar fight in a domed underwater city?

I started doing these critiques to solve the practical problems of grading my classes in a meaningful way, and of keeping my early morning sections from staring silently at me with blank expressions. But I’ve noticed that the students take suggestions from the critiques seriously, in a way that they don’t always take the rest of the class. Some kids might blow off assignments and fail to retain technical information from one week to the next, but then they’ll reference a comment about how they should have longer sections in their tracks, months after hearing it. I’m not surprised that creative feedback makes a difference; it’s the kind of feedback I wished I got from my own music teachers, not to mention my peers.

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