A Relational Assessment System

A self-managed process that encourages a more responsible approach to learning

Reykjavik Docks 2.png
Approaching Reykjavik from the air

The Icelandic Academy of Design’s Context

“The primary purpose of assessment is to provide students with information regarding their academic performance. It also provides the Academy with verification that students have gained knowledge and competence in specified areas."

A relations-based approach

This novel assessment system is intended to foster a more ‘joined-up’ learning experience that gives students more responsibility for directing their aims and achieving their goals. Instead of taking the student's studio work and essays as the central focus of assessment, our system records how well students have managed their whole learning process. They are expected to map their role and self-identity and to keep their own record of interests, ambitions, strategies, successes, failures and what they have learned from these. The whole process is monitored, supervised and, ultimately, assessed by staff, using a simple, comprehensive model that maps four key considerations and the six relationships that hold them together.

A longer-term vision

This assessment system offers a longer-term perspective, perhaps beyond the timescale of the course, in which creative risk taking is encouraged. It reminds students that a graduate program may be their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to undertake grand experiments within a safe environment. It assumes that learning from failure is more important than succeeding by using superficial or conservative means. It therefore invites students to be bolder and more ambitious and encourages them to think about their personal and professional development on a longer-term basis. It gives examiners more opportunity to be less generous with students who have opted for 'quick-fix' skills without reflecting upon deeper issues. It presents a larger-than-usual model of the design process and assesses how well the student manages his, or her, development within it.

A learner-centred model

Most traditional assessment systems are highly dependent on the skilled professional judgement of academic staff. By contrast, this system also evaluates how well the student has managed his, or her, own development. Therefore, it is each student's responsibility to provide explicit evidence for his, or her, level of self-awareness, 'client empathy', motivation, predilections, cognitive style, learning strategies, etc.. By making students more responsible for more of their learning process, we intended to encourage them to identify and to manage their limitations and strengths. This also helps them to identify, and to work with, other team types, whose capabilities and interests are complementary with their own.

The student's perspective

From the learner's point of view, assessment will derive from how well he, or she, has aligned herself with four interdependent factors that s/he chose and managed in his, or her, own way. In generic terms, these can be imagined as:

A = Me, and who I want to become
B =My work and ideas
C = The bigger context for A, B and D
D = My work's current intended user
1 to 6 = square-50cm-spacer.jpg Each of the relations between A to D

The University's perspective

Academic examiners evaluate how well the student explained and showed how he, or she, has managed the four factors:

  • A = How well the student managed her self-identity & effectiveness (etc.) as a designer
  • B = The student's ideas, research, studio output and essays
  • C = What the student deems to be the philosophical, ethical, environmental and professional, context behind A, B and D
  • D = The student's nominated (or potential) mentor/s, collaborator/s, stakeholder/s, funder/s or employers.
  • 1 to 6 = Each of the relations between A to D

Mapping in 3-D

Although the above elements are shown (above) as lists, this system has no fixed hierarchy. Rather, it consists of 4 interdependent factors including the learner. As many design thinkers (e.g. students) seem to prefer a 3D form, rather than a linear (e.g. list-based) presentation, the framework for visualising the assessment criteria is the tetrahedron.

Coloured Tetrad No Text.jpg

square-50cm-spacer.jpg The tetrahedron

This works as a four-fold map depicting 'players' (i.e. the silver spheres) and the 'relations' between them (i.e. the coloured rods that connect them). Assessment is based on the student's creation and development of 'players' (i.e. A, B, C and D) and how well s/he has managed the relations between them (i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6). The student's presentation of his, or her, creation of, and understanding of, the 10 elements (A, B, C and D and 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6) becomes the main basis upon which grades are awarded. (N.B. Programme teams may choose to give more weighting to some criteria than others, according to the specific educational needs and aims of the institution).

Tetrad 1.png square-50cm-spacer.jpg Relations Only Tetrad.png
square-50cm-spacer.jpg The 4 key 'players' square-50cm-spacer.jpg square-50cm-spacer.jpg Their 6 relations
square-50cm-spacer.jpg square-50cm-spacer.jpg square-50cm-spacer.jpg
A = THE LEARNER as private citizen / masters student / future professional designer square-50cm-spacer.jpg Number 1.png = THE LEARNER'S ENGAGEMENT WITH HIS/HER WORK (A relating to B) - including finding his/her purpose / element / studentship / style / approach etc.
B = THE SUBMITTED WORK as portfolio / texts / reports that clearly include reference to A / C / D square-50cm-spacer.jpg Number 2.png = THE LEARNER'S ENGAGEMENT WITH THE WORLD (A relating to C) - including curiosity management / ethics / self-identity / resourcefulness
C = THE WORLD including what we owe to it & what it can offer us as a resource square-50cm-spacer.jpg Number 3.png = THE WORK'S DEPTH & RELEVANCE (B relating to C) - including its possible environmental, social, cultural effects and impact, within/beyond the brief
D = INTENDED RECIPIENT e.g. mentor / collaborator / nominated 'reader' / 'client' / 'end user' square-50cm-spacer.jpg Number 4.png = THE LEARNER'S DEALINGS WITH THE RECIPIENT (A relating to D) - including level of empathy shown / communication skills / diplomacy / ingenuity
square-50cm-spacer.jpg square-50cm-spacer.jpg Number 5.png = EMPATHY WITH THE RECIPIENT (C relating to D) - including creative opportunism / ability to show new perspectives or opportunities to another
square-50cm-spacer.jpg square-50cm-spacer.jpg Number 6.png = ENTREPRENEURIAL SKILLS (B relating to D) - including creative opportunism / ability to interest another in a new worldview, perspective or opportunity

Another way to represent the system

How the system is mapped may change the way it is used. By using an X-Y grid that repeats the 4 criteria along vertical and horizontal axes it is possible to show how each criterion has its own integrity (e.g. 'me-to-me'). In the example shown below, only the ten criteria are mapped. This leaves 6 empty boxes. If required, the X and Y-axes might be differentiated as 'active' and 'passive' versions of the criteria. The whole system works slightly differently. For example, it adds an additional 6 criteria for assessment.

Iceland Assessment Matrix.png
A 2D map of the assessment criteria


  • 1. It encourages more self-reflexive awareness.
  • 2. It encourages entrepreneurial resourcefulness.
  • 3. It makes ethical aspects of practice more visible and assessable.
  • 4. Its learner-specific nature makes plagiarism virtually impossible.
  • 5. It encourages a more realistic (professional) approach to practice.
  • 6. It encourages students to be more ambitious without fear of losing marks.
  • 7. It relieves examiners from making 'absolute' quality judgements on coursework.
  • 8. It encourages a stronger sense of student self identity (individually & professionally).


All constructive or critical suggestions are welcomed by John Wood: email: Maxripple Email.png

Further Reading

Go to MA Metadesign Practice developments
Notes for John Wood's academic visits to The Icelandic Academy of Arts
Go to Year ONE outline
Go to Year TWO outline
Return to home