The Design Dojo Way

Giving Traditional Grading a Flying Side Kick

In Bellarmine's Design Dojo, all students start out as a design "white belts". Through a point system explained below, students can "level up" to higher belt ranks in the manner used by martial arts and video games. The goal is to earn the rank of "Black Belt" Designer or even the extremely rare rank of "Design Ninja."

Why Points and Belts Versus Traditional Letter Grades?

Let's consider the psychology of the traditional letter grading system.

In the traditional format, if a student earns an "A" on their first exam or project then he or she can rightfully say that they currently have an "A" in the class. There is no higher status, nothing greater to strive for, no added incentive. In fact there is only the fearful, disincentive of their grade dropping. Much like a tightrope walker, students in this format worry about getting to the other side (of the semester) without making a mistake and falling (having their grade drop). As a result, this educational paradigm is understandably described by students as stressful - and rarely fun. At the end of the year, the peak emotion that most of these students feel (like that of our tightrope walker) is simply relief.

In contrast, consider the psychological incentive involved in sports, martial arts, and video games (i.e. how most students want to spend their time . . . and why).

Whether real or simulated, the challenge in sports, martial arts, and video games is to take one's self from the bottom (little skill, few accomplishments, no status) and rise to the highest possible level that one can (pro athlete, black belt, arch wizard, etc.) In each of these arenas, there is an inherent challenge not to merely maintain one's status - but to continually improve upon it. Essentially, given the prospect of a higher status to achieve, one is driven to: A) Stay focused on short-term benchmark goals B) Recognize areas for growth and C) Give one's best until the very end.

Still not convinced? Just try to imagine if the traditional grading system was somehow applied to sports, martial arts, or video games. What incentive would there be to participate in a sport if you began with the highest possible status (Gold Medalist, MVP, etc.) and could only risk losing this peak level of achievement? Would anyone take a Jujitsu class if they were give a black belt on the first day and could only be demoted? What fun would there be in a video game that starts you out with the highest level character who can only get worse? Such scenarios make so little sense that they are difficult to even comprehend.

Essentially, people are far more motivated by the opportunity to grow and earn their way up rather that merely holding on and surviving. Which brings us to our Design Dojo assessment alternative: the points and belt system . . .

The Design Dojo Point and Belt System

The following are ways to earn points in the Design Dojo.

  • ±10pts Participation (blog posts, homework, participation, etc.)
  • +25pts Dojo Mastery Challenges (design tool exercises)
  • +200pts Dojo Epic Feats (major design projects - 4 per semester)
  • +25pts The All-Dojo Awards (top 3 designs as voted by other classes)

NOTE: Blog Posts and Mastery Challenges must be done before the second to last week of the semester to avoid a last minute tidal wave of posts and challenges.

The belt ranking in the Design Dojo are:

  • 0-199 White Belt
  • 200-399 Yellow Belt
  • 400-599 Green Belt
  • 600-799 Blue Belt
  • 800-899 Brown Belt
  • 900-999 Black Belt
  • +1000 Design Ninja

There are approximately 1300pts allowable per semester. Because colleges might be confused by a "Ninja" grade on your transcript, each belt has a correlating letter grade at the end of the semester (850pts = Brown Belt = "B", 1025pts = Design Ninja = "A+"). For the midterm, a projected grade (midterm points x 2) will estimate the final belt rank and corelating grade.

Dojo Disposition - Earning Blog Points

Every week, you have the opportunity to comment on one of our fascinating, design-related blog posts for added points. Your comments can earn up to 10pts per post, but be aware that points are not awarded automatically for just any ol' kind of content.

Here is a sample rubric:

10pts - insight and reference
"The predominant use of the color blue in the each of the most popular web broswer logos is not an accident. This commonality probably occurs for two reasons. First, as shown in the link below, the color blue is a favorite among people everywhere:
Thus, logos that are predominantly blue are likely more attractive to users. Second, the challenge of visualizing the world wide web lends itself to using the color blue as the world's oceans and skies are both blue. Hence, when one sees the color blue there can be an automatic association with our blue planet.

5pts - opinion and design rationale
"I like the Apple Safari logo the best because the reflective textures feel modern and the compass elements cleanly relate the concept of navigating the web."

0 pts - raw opinion
"The Microsoft Internet Explorer logo is my favorite because it is cool."

-10pts - inappropriate (flame, troll, random)
"Here is a picture of my cat."

Design Dojo Rubric

For the Dojo Skills Exercises, these mini-projects take a single class to complete and are mastery-based. That is, you need to show that you have these skills down (e.g., the "pen tool gauntlet") in order to work on the bigger Dojo Challenges. So the points for these preliminary exercises are only awarded when it is clear you have the given skill mastered. However, you can practice, re-take, and get credit anytime for these exercises.

For the Dojo Eric Feats (the major design projects that are worth the most points), be aware that the 200pts available do not come easy (these are challenges after all - and - keep in mind that any teacher, coach, friend, etc who tells you that your first and only effort is perfect is not helping you. Seriously.)

So what your classmates and I will be looking for is:

  • A clear understanding of the discussed directions.
  • A challenging initial concept.
  • An admirable overall craftsmanship.
  • A masterful application of design principles.

The final points earned can be thought of like this:

  • 200pts = The very best I have ever seen. The initial design concept is very challenging and the craftsmanship is flawless. Moreover, the work shows a mastery of the tools and principles employed to make such a design. Yoda is jealous of you.
  • 180pts = One of the finest designs of the semester. The concept is demanding and the craftsmanship shows just a few elements that might be improved with more effort.
  • 160pts = Nice going, solid design. The work shows some design understanding, but clearly lacks a grasp of the directions, tools, or creativity seen in better work.
  • 140pts = Hmmm. Little challenge, craftsmanship, or effort is evident and/or the directions are blatantly ignored.
  • 120pts = Wha? There is some glaring omission or error in the work.
  • 0-100pts = Why? You either stole this work or just don't care.

Non-Fixed Assessment

In the professional design industry, the use of client feedback and re-edits is commonplace. So your final drafts are far more important than your first drafts. So, unlike most classes, you will have an opportunity to improve your big Epic Feat point totals by up to 20pts after it has been critiqued and turned in.

However, be aware:

  • You have one week after the assignment is graded to turn in a revised version.
  • You are only allowed one round of re-edits for a given project.
  • The revised version needs to show considerable improvement in either concept or craftsmanship in order to earn points.
  • It is much easier to go from 140pts to 160pts than 180pts to 200pts. Remember, 200pts is the best I have ever seen for a given project.