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Vertical Studio Teaching and Assessment in Art and Design: an Evaluation of Learning Systems

Vertical Studio Teaching and Assessment in Art and Design: an Evaluation of Learning Systems

Abstract: This paper concerns a three-phase qualitative investigation into the strengths and weaknesses of an approach to ‘vertical studio’ teaching and assessment adopted at the University of Luton[1] in 2004. It discusses Phases 1 (secondary research into various forms of mixed-level teaching and learning within art and design) and 2 (primary research into students’ experiences of the vertical studio teaching and assessment environment) of the project, and evaluates assumptions on what the students learned and how they learned it. It concludes that, although there appeared to be close parity between these assumptions and the respondents’ learning experiences, there were key exceptions: no student identified the vertical studio as enhancing their technical know-how or knowledge of general institutional matters, and few appeared to value it as a vehicle for learning through competition. Also, certain respondents stated that teaching knowledge and skills to students from lower levels was time-consuming and hindered their own progress (particularly in skills development). Finally, the few respondents who suggested ways of improving the vertical studio suggested that IT skills development could be enhanced.

Key Words: Vertical Studio Teaching and Assessment, Mixed-Level Teaching and Assessment, Learning Systems in Art and Design

Author information: Garry Layden is Academic Director: Art and Design Field at University of Bedfordshire

Date: September 2010

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1.0  Introduction

1.1 Background

In 2004, I restructured the syllabuses of the University of Luton’s Interior Architecture and Interior Design honours-degrees[2], combining students from different academic levels to study design practice as follows:

  • Semester 1: Stage 2 and 3[3] students tackled the same design project briefs, had mixed-level tutorials and mixed-level critiques, and were taught together. 
  • Semester 2: Stage 1[4] and 2 students followed a similar approach.
  • End of teaching year: Stage 2 and 3 students paired-up to create the Degree Show.

Teaching and assessing students from different year groups together has been part of architectural education for many years. I had had direct experience of it as an Architecture tutor, and this led me to expect that it would accelerate and enrich students’ learning as follows:

Specialist knowledge and skills

  • knowledge of what a successful/unsuccessful finished design proposal might look like
  • knowledge of what a well-produced sketchbook might look like (eg: containing plenty of hand-drawing, evidence of exploration and critical thinking, etc)
  • knowledge of how to produce orthographic, paraline and perspective drawings with correct line weights, conventions and (where appropriate) scales
  • contextual research skills
  • creative thinking skills to help produce less predictable, more imaginative results
  • design synthesis skills to help develop and complete design project work
  • model-making skills for design development purposes
  • presentation skills (including drawing by hand and using certain computer packages, and model-making)
  • verbal communication skills for use during tutorials and critiques

Technical know-how

  • knowledge of materials, products, means of environmental control etc

Greater cultural awareness

  • knowledge of more sophisticated, innovative and ambitious design ideas gained directly from students at other levels, through the books, journals and buildings with which those students were acquainted
  • knowledge of a more general cultural awareness gained from students at other levels (for instance, by acquiring pointers about what might be interesting, important or worth studying further)

General practical know-how

  • knowledge of where to buy drawing and model-making materials
  • knowledge of where to get finished work printed at low cost

Knowledge of general institutional matters

  • knowledge of what I and my teaching colleagues expected in terms of studio attendance, studio participation, punctuality etc
  • knowledge of how to use the library resources
  • knowledge of how to access the IT suite
  • knowledge of how to use the University’s e-mail system and access its on-line learning environment

Transferable/key skills

  • how to work with less/more experienced students in group/team settings
  • how to lead those who are less experienced
  • how to manage time effectively
  • more general IT skills

In addition, I expected it would improve retention by breaking down barriers between year groups and creating a greater sense of community. I also expected learning would take place chiefly through the following:

  • observation: students from lower years observing students from higher years in action (and vice versa)
  • advice: students from higher years advising students from lower years (and vice versa)
  • competition: students from lower years trying to compete with students from higher years (and vice versa)

However, I was frequently disappointed with my Spatial Design students’ work, and wanted to find out why it was not meeting my expectations and what improvements I could make.

2.0 Research methodology

Four years ago I began a research project that sought to provide this information. Within the context of this paper, its aims were to investigate:

  • the extent to which less experienced and/or able Spatial Design students were learning from more experienced and/or able colleagues, through my vertical studio environment 
  • how learning took place, and what was learned

I proposed a three phase project:

Phase 1: secondary research into vertical studio teaching – the underpinning pedagogy. 

Phase 2: primary research into my Spatial Design students’ experience of vertical studio teaching and assessment. 

Phase 3: The devising, implementation and evaluation of proposals for improving that vertical studio teaching and assessment environment.

This paper focuses on Phase 1 and 2 data concerning: what the students learned and how they learned it.

3.0 Phase 1: secondary research into vertical studio teaching – the underpinning pedagogy

My secondary research (discussed in another paper) revealed little about the underpinning pedagogy of the vertical studio. Although many claims were made about its achievements, I found little discussion on why these might be possible, nor of any limitations or shortcomings. I had intended that Phase 1. would help me evaluate my own vertical studio teaching. Clearly, I would have to find another evaluative tool. This is discussed in section 4.0.

4.0 Phase 2: primary research into my Spatial Design students’ experience of vertical studio teaching and assessment

In 2006-07, the University of Luton’s Spatial Design degrees had a total of 53 students: 20 at Stage 1, 15 at Stage 2 and 18 at Stage 3. I wanted them to explain, as honestly and accurately as possible, what they thought and felt about the vertical studio. I therefore chose to obtain data by means of a questionnaire that asked each student to complete, anonymously, three open-ended statements:

  • I have found the vertical studio helpful because…
  • I have found the vertical studio unhelpful because…
  • I think the vertical studio would have been more helpful to me if…

18 students responded: six from Stage 1, five from Stage 2, six from Stage 3 and one who did not specify (see Appendix 1). There is not room here to explain the methods of qualitative data analysis used. Please see Lofland and Lofland, 1995, for helpful information.

5.0 Data analysis

See Appendix 2 (in downloadable PDF) for details of the categories, sub-categories and sub-sub-categories concerning used to analyse what the students learned and how they learned it.

6.0 Helpful features of the vertical studio

6.1 Category: learning from other students

One of my main reasons for introducing the vertical studio was to help the students to learn from each other (see section 1.1). I was therefore pleased to find that respondents from all three stages identified this a helpful feature. Their comments led me to two sub-categories: what was learned? and how was it learned?

Sub-category: what was learned?

Although few respondents mentioned specifically the knowledge and skills I assumed they would gain, my analysis resulted in several sub-sub-categories that indicated reasonably close parity between these assumptions and many of the respondents’ experiences. There were, of course, exceptions. Mostly these were relatively minor, however, I believe that two were major: no student commented on the vertical studio as enhancing their technical know-how or knowledge of general institutional matters. This is important, indicating two key areas where the vertical studio was not achieving what I expected, and which will be tackled in Phase 3. 

Sub-category: how was it learned?

Several respondents from all three stages appear to have found the vertical studio helpful for learning through observation and receiving advice. However, it appears that few valued it as a vehicle for learning through competition. This is important, indicating a key area where the vertical studio was not achieving what I expected, and which will be tackled in Phase 3. 

6.2 To what extent were knowledge and skills acquired from students at other stages?

As revealed in Appendix 2, the respondents appear to have learned various kinds of knowledge, plus certain skills. However, we might reasonably expect students in a non-vertical design studio to have achieved similarly, so careful analysis is needed to enable us to ascertain to what extent the mixed-level teaching and assessment environment contributed. Firstly, consider knowledge of the standard/level of work. Student 4 – Stage 3 and Student 6 – Stage 2 specified that the learning was from the “year above”, and Student 14 – Stage 1 that it was from “the second year”. This suggests that respondents from all three stages had learned knowledge of the standard/level of work from those at higher levels.

Student 3 – Stage 3 mentioned gaining knowledge of new/more ideas from students who were not “of your same level”, and Student 8 – Stage 2 from “people in different years”. However, Student 13 – Stage 1 made no mention of the level at all: “more people – more ideas”. This suggests that only Stage 2 and 3 respondents had learned knowledge of new/more ideas. It also suggests that the knowledge could have been passed from lower to higher levels, as well as vice versa.

Student 12 – Stage 1 made it clear that knowledge of the tutors’ expectations came from “people who have more experience than you have” (presumably including those from higher stages). Student 8 – Stage 2 was less explicit, stating that it was helpful to see what was expected from “each year group”. Student 17 – Stage 1 made it clear regarding knowledge of more general practical information that s/he had “learnt a lot from level 2 students”. This suggests that only a Stage 1 respondent had learned knowledge of the tutors’ expectations from those at higher levels.

Student – 8 Stage 2 stated that new group/team leadership skills had been learned “from higher years”, Student 4 – Stage 3 that “the older student” (this, I suspect, denotes a higher level student) did the learning (a point echoed to some extent by Student 6 – Stage 2: “there is a diff. type of learning to be achieved when working with a yr. below, its (sic) more about teamwork + leadership”) and Student 7 – Stage 2 who said that, in better organised mixed Stage 1 and 2 groups “the 2nd years would learn how to lead a team”. No Stage 1 respondent commented on this, but since they were not put in group/team leadership roles, this is not surprising.

Student 9 – Stage 2, commenting on different way/s of thinking, mentioned that, at Stage 1, s/he had benefited from “their line of thinking” (I reason that “their” denotes Stage 2 students), and Student 17 – Stage 1 that s/he had “learnt a lot from level 2 students”. This suggests that only Stage 1 and 2 respondents had learned different way/s of thinking.

Regarding working methods, use of programmes and approaches to presentation, Student 6 – Stage 2 mentioned that “exposure to students a year above was very good”, Student 7 – Stage 2 that, at Stage 1, it was sometimes helpful to receive advice from “level 2 students”, and Student 12 – Stage 1 that s/he got to work with “people who have more experience than you have”. This suggests that only Stage 1 and 2 respondents had learned about working methods, use of programmes and approaches to presentation from those at higher levels.

Student 8 – Stage 2 mentioned learning unspecified skills from “higher years”. However, Student 2 – Stage 3 and Student 5 – Stage 3 were less exact, the former stating only that s/he learned such skills “from other people”, and the latter that s/he had learned things from: “different people”.

This suggests that the vertical studio was providing students with an environment in which learning was happening across year boundaries, with the knowledge and skills travelling chiefly from those at higher levels to those lower down.

7.0 Unhelpful features of the vertical studio

Several respondents identified teaching knowledge and skills to students from lower levels as “UNhelpful”. The phrases used indicate that the ‘teacher’ could find it time-consuming, feel that their own progress (particularly in skills development) was being impeded, and/or believe that some of their ‘pupils’ did not work hard enough. Although a relatively small number of respondents made these comments (one from Stage 3 and three from Stage 2), they provide interesting insights, indicating something to be tackled in Phase 3. 

8.0  What would have made the vertical studio more helpful?

Only three respondents suggested ways of making the vertical studio more helpful, one from Stage 3 and two from Stage 2. I grouped their comments into one category (future skills development), and four sub-categories (see Appendix 2). It would be unwise to propose wide-ranging conclusions from so few responses. However, the focus on IT skills and the willingness to pass them on in a structured way are of interest, and these will be explored in Phase 3.

9.0 Conclusions

This paper concerns a three-phase qualitative investigation into the strengths and weaknesses of an approach to mixed-level (or ‘vertical studio’) teaching and assessment adopted at the University of Luton in 2004. It focuses on the results of Phases 1 (secondary research into various forms of mixed-level teaching and learning within art and design) and 2 (primary research into students’ experiences of the vertical studio teaching and assessment environment) and evaluates my assumptions on what the students learned and how they learned it.

The data suggests that, in this vertical studio, learning was happening across year boundaries, with the knowledge and skills travelling chiefly from higher to lower levels. Few students mentioned specifically the knowledge and skills I assumed they would gain, but the data indicates that there was close parity between my assumptions and the respondents’ learning experiences. There were exceptions. Most were, arguably, relatively minor and explicable, however, two appear major: no student commented on the vertical studio as enhancing their technical know-how, or knowledge of general institutional matters. This is an important outcome, indicating two key areas where the vertical studio was not achieving what I wanted it to, and which must be tackled in Phase 3.

Several respondents from all three stages appear to have found the vertical studio helpful for learning through observation and receiving advice. However, it appears that few valued it as a vehicle for learning through competition. This is also an important outcome, indicating a key area where the vertical studio was not achieving what I expected, and which must be tackled in Phase 3.

Some respondents identified teaching knowledge and skills to lower level students as “UNhelpful”. The phrases used indicate that the ‘teacher’ could find it time-consuming, feel that their own progress (particularly in skills development) was being impeded, and/or believe that some of their ‘pupils’ did not work hard enough. Although few respondents made these comments, they provide interesting insights, and something to be tackled in Phase 3.

Because few respondents suggested ways of improving their vertical studio, I believe it would be unwise to try to draw wide-ranging conclusions from their responses. However, arguably of interest are the focus on IT skills and the willingness to pass on IT skills in a structured way. The possibility of enhancing the vertical studio in these ways will be explored in Phase 3.

10 Bibliography

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Appendix 1: See PDF download

Appendix 2: See PDF download


[1] Now called the University of Bedfordshire.

[2] For convenience, these courses shall be identified, collectively, throughout this paper as the “Spatial Design degrees”.

[3] At the time of writing, the terms Stage 1, 2 and 3 are used to denote the first, second and third years of a full-time honours-level programme of study (also known as Levels 4, 5 and 6). The students quoted in this paper have not used these terms at all, but have used several others instead: for example, “1st Years”, “Level 1 students” and “year ones” instead of “Stage 1”. I believe it will be reasonably clear to the reader what these students mean. However, for the sake of consistency, unless quoting others, I shall always use the terms Stage 1, 2 and 3.

[4] See note 3 above.

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