Evaluating Multimedia Assignments

We’re asking a number of important questions in the Graduate Multimedia Fellows Seminar: What is multimedia? Why assign multimedia rather than a traditional paper? What kinds of assignments are worth giving in which disciplinary contexts to develop what kinds of knowledge and skills?

But more important than any of these questions is the one that everyone else asks whenever I mention the course: how do you evaluate multimedia assignments?

Paper-grading is easy – or at least, we do it often enough to know what it entails. Problem sets, exams, and other traditional assessments all have conventional criteria for evaluation. But multimedia can often seen like uncharted territory. Should students be graded on technical proficiency? What does a visual argument look like? How do you compare the effort and thought that some students put into a video with the effort and thought other students put into papers?

After weeks of deliberation, we don’t have answers to all these questions, but we have some suggestions and reflection ideas for anyone considering assigning (and evaluating) student multimedia work.

1) Like most other work students do in courses at Harvard, multimedia work should be evaluated as academic work. If you wouldn’t give a B+ to a student paper written in stream-of-consciousness style, you already know what to do with a video that is disorganized, has no argument, or otherwise violates academic conventions you’ve taught.

2) Convention is key. Did you assign a video essay? A creative contemplation? Parody? If your assignment asked students to work within certain generic boundaries, you should evaluate whether they satisfactorily applied the conventions of the genre. If you didn’t ask students to work within a specific genre, if you didn’t train them to recognize its conventions, or if you didn’t make your expectations clear in the assignment prompt, then you’ll have to find other criteria to evaluate.

3) Consider whether students used multimedia resources purposefully. In other words, did they include sounds, images, text, and other media in ways that suggest critical reflection? Or was their use of certain elements superfluous, random, intended only for laughs?

4) What meaning is made through the student work? How did the tool(s) used enhance meaning? (Conversely, how did the tools used distract from making meaning?) Just as in papers, student work that makes new meaning should be rewarded, and the chosen multimedia format should play a role in making that meaning.

5) You may choose to require (minimal) command of production techniques in advance. If you don’t, and if you haven’t taught production techniques or offered students resources, then it may be unfair to grade students on production quality. (Pro tip: offer students preemptive training in the media they’ll work in so that production quality is more uniform across the class.)

6) Do students show awareness or acknowledgement of their audience? We expect students to write with a certain audience in mind; multimedia projects are no different.

7) Students can and often should make arguments in multimedia work. Screencasts/iMovies (which often take the form of recorded, narrated Powerpoint presentations), podcasts, and live-action videos all offer students opportunities to state a thesis, organize and analyze evidence, and structure analysis in the form of an argument.

8) Tone/Style: does the student’s voice come through in the work? Do students demonstrate consistency and intentionality in their multimedia communication? We don’t always make this a criteria of grading papers or problem sets; similarly, it may not be an important part of multimedia work.

9) Multimedia projects present numerous opportunities for citation of sources (captions, images of resources, hyperlinks) and as long as you make your expectations clear in advance, students can and should be evaluated on their ability to incorporate primary and secondary sources in their multimedia work.

Ultimately, students’ ability to successfully produce multimedia work depends largely on their preparation. Just as students often complete small writing assignments in advance of an essay or research paper, they need to practice working with multimedia – not just on the production side, but in terms of making arguments, citing sources, and developing a voice – well before they attempt a final project. Small-scale multimedia work can be evaluated on a complete/incomplete basis, since it’s practice. Then, when it comes time to attempt the end-of-semester video, or website launch, or virtual exhibit, you’ll find that the overall level of student work is high enough that you’ll be able to grade this non-traditional work using many of the criteria you’d use to evaluate traditional papers.

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