Risk Taking and the Assessment of Creative Learning


by Douglas G Boughton*

Assessing creative learning is one of the most difficult tasks for educators in all fields and particularly for the visual arts. The habits of mind required to conceive novel ideas and to conjoin unlike elements are difficult to nurture in students and even more difficult to assess. One of the central elements of creative behavior is willingness to take risks in the artistic enterprise. Risk has long been hailed as the centerpiece of arts education given its role in promoting students to attempt to break new ground with media, form, and content. Unwillingness to take a chance inevitability leads to the production of repetitive and unimaginative work.

The process of taking a risk requires great courage (Eisner, 2005) which is why it is problematic in the teaching context. Risk carries consequences which render students reluctant to make themselves vulnerable. They frequently do not want to take a chance with their grade, particularly in high-stakes assessment contexts, and they are also concerned about the way in which they are perceived by their peers, families, and teachers.

Not only does student risk-taking offer consequences for the student, these days the teacher is also at risk. In the United States, for example, teacher tenure is increasingly questioned. In 2014 a California lower court judge ruled that teacher tenure is a violation of student rights because it allows poor teachers to remain in their jobs, thus disadvantaging students (New York Times, 2014). Although this ruling was later overturned by the High Court a strong movement remains in other states of the US to attack teacher tenure and demand re-credentialing of teachers a regular basis. As part of this process teachers are required to regularly produce valid and reliable assessment data to demonstrate students have learned in their classes. Failure to do so could mean loss of employment.

Given that teachers are now being assessed on the effectiveness of their teaching it is not surprising that those who teach art may become reluctant to encourage their students to take risks, and suffer the possibility of failure, when their own futures are at stake. Such an atmosphere of fear and mistrust engendered in schools by oppressive accountability measures do not promote the kind of freedom and confidence necessary for creative and risky enterprises in the art classroom. Although, the picture that I have drawn is based on circumstances in the United States, unfortunately the policies originating from this country have a nasty habit of spreading overseas.

That said, in the following pages I will report the findings of a study, still in progress, that investigates the nature of risk, and the conditions under which risk is undertaken by students, in high school art classes. The study was undertaken in Dublin, Ireland, and Chicago, USA. Another, parallel study, is being undertaken in the Netherlands but no findings are yet available. My interest in undertaking the study was stimulated by increasing conditions of constraint I have observed in schools in recent years. I became curious about the ways in which students identify risk, and the conditions under which they are likely to undertake risky exploration for the purpose of producing creative outcomes.

The reason for choosing two different settings, one in Europe, and the other in the United States was that assessment conditions in both places are quite different. In Ireland students are assessed at senior high school levels with high-stakes centrally administered examinations, whereas in the United States assessment is usually the sole province of the individual art teacher. Examinations are not often used and assessment moderation processes are typically not applied. It seemed to me that there may be some differences in the way students regard the relationship of risks and grades in their efforts to create original work.

In addition, I found very little research work had been done to investigate the notion of risk in creative processes in the context of schools. In fact, it is regarded as a taken for granted assumption that an individual who takes a risk with their art making is more likely to produce a creative outcome but little systematic research exists to demonstrate the veracity of this belief. There has, of course, been considerable research done by social psychologists such as Csikszentmihalyi (1996) in which risk taking is noted as a characteristic of creative individuals.

Some of the key questions answered by the study included these:

  1. Is the idea of risk taking understood and employed by students as part of creative problem solving in the process of art making in and out of school?
  2. What motivates students to take a risk with their art work?
  3. What kinds of risks do students take (eg with media, content, form, etc.)
  4. Are there certain conditions under which students might be more likely to take a risk than others?
  5. How might risk-taking be assessed?

Students selected for the study were 10-20 senior high school students and their teachers in each of six schools (three schools in each country) currently taking a senior art class. Students were identified by their teachers as those who have previously attempted to take risks with their art work. Teachers and schools were selected by snowball sampling using professional contacts who recommended teachers known to encourage students to explore creative solutions to visual art making problems. Two public schools and one private (International Baccalaureate) school were selected by the researcher in the Chicago area. Three schools were identified for the study in Dublin Ireland (a boys school, a girls school, and a co-ed school) by a research associate at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD).

All students responded to a questionnaire addressing questions related to the above and a selected sample of respondents were interviewed face-to-face with examples of their artwork. The students were asked to point to evidence in the work that demonstrated the risks they believed they had undertaken.

While this research is still in progress some fascinating outcomes have been revealed, some consistent with prevailing beliefs, and some quite contrary. As one might expect, students, who have been identified by their teachers as risk takers do seem to understand the nature of risk and its relationship to creative production. Many subjects commented on the need to take a chance in order to experience the possibility of an unexpected outcome, to push boundaries, or to create a unique piece of art. Here is what two students said in response to the question “How would you explain to a non-artist the idea of risk taking when someone makes art?

“It is when you do something in art and are completely unaware of what the outcome will be. It is exciting and exhilarating as you may, even if it is unplanned, create something amazing.”

“Stepping out of your comfort zone is really the only way to create purely unique pieces of art. If no one ever pushes the boundaries of what they know, developments will never be made.”

These answers were typical of the majority of responses in both Ireland and the United States. Frequent references were made to “pushing boundaries” and “moving outside of one’s comfort zone”.

In response to the question about why they undertook a risk, (i.e. “what did you hope to gain?”) students responded consistently that they were motivated by the hope of achieving something unusual or new, or that the work overall would be improved. A few admitted that if a piece is not working, and they were desperate, taking a chance was a last ditch effort to recover a piece that appeared to be destined for failure.

It was clear from the students’ responses that teachers had talked to them about risk-taking and had encouraged them to take chances with their work. We asked the students whether a risk was still important if the teacher encouraged them to take it, to which the responses were similarly divided in both countries. Some said that the risk was less significant because if the piece failed as a consequence of taking the risk the teacher could be blamed. Others said the risk was the same because “a risk is always a risk”. And a third group said that the risk was greater if the teacher suggested it, because then the teacher was holding higher expectations for a more innovative work.

The answer to the question “what kind of risks do students take?” overwhelmingly revealed that most risk-taking was perceived by students as taking a chance with media in terms of doing something new with it, or alternatively trying a different media. While some students spoke about expanding ideas, or changing perspective, the overwhelming majority talked about experimenting with media. Here are some examples of the kinds of comments students made:

“I was exploring decay so therefore I experimented with different materials and techniques to create new textures and patterns. It was all a game of chance and I experimented using unusual domestic items such as sand, tree, stones, PVA and salt.” 

“In portfolio class, my teacher encouraged me to paint on a huge sheet of paper completely freehand with a large jagged brush and large amount of paint. This for me was a huge risk as I’d consider myself to be a perfectionist.”

When I asked students to bring examples of their work in which they believed they had undertaken a risk, it became clear that in most cases risks with media did not necessarily produce innovative work. In fact, in most cases, the work was traditional and conservative. This seems to be because students’ ambition for their work was to produce something that looked very much like previous artwork they had seen and admired, or to be able to reproduce an image in their mind that was consistent with existing artistic genres. Illustration 1 shows the attempt by one student to create a piece that fulfilled his vision following a risk he took with media. Clearly it is not particularly original in content, but is technically adept. The student felt he had taken a chance and he was satisfied with the outcome, which was by no means creative or original.

During interview this student said that he believed skills and concepts were equally important in terms of risk-taking. And then:

“… if you do well with skill you are guaranteed to get a good enough result whereas if you stray from tradition you run the risk of maybe the examiner or someone misinterpreting your work or not being able to make meaning.”

“…in school you need to satisfy the examiners so sometimes you need to put that before the examiner but that’s not an issue for me because I always enjoy doing the kind of painting that the examiners require.”


So while the student understood the importance of conceptual risk-taking he was happy to concentrate upon the development of technical skill because that is what he felt would satisfy the examiners.

A smaller percentage of students took chances with risky content and unconventional form resulting in work that could be regarded as rather more inventive and creative. This student worked on the creation of images on her iPhone which was a nontraditional medium and an independent exploration she undertook without instruction from the teacher. She also experimented with content and form understanding she was deliberately breaking the rules of composition. She explained she was trying to incorporate a human figure into complex landscape to make a comment about complexity and realized there were compositional issues. About the medium she said:

“I like new applications and that’s a risk because I don’t know how they will turn out [or] whether, I’m just not going to understand how they work.”

“I never utilize collages because I found it difficult to like make.

…collage is difficult to make it look balanced. I took the risk of using [digital] collages.”

And about the image she said

‘When I first saw it I thought it was too crowded. It was a composition problem. It looked too crowded. I decided to keep it because it reflected how complex the issue is..”


When asked the question about the conditions under which they would be most likely to take a risk, students overwhelmingly indicated, in both countries, that when they were out of school or at home they felt more comfortable about taking chances. Typically, the reason given for this was that nobody else would see their work (and the potential failure) and no grade would be given by the teacher for the work.

Another condition under which students indicated that would be likely to take risks was if they made a mistake with their work and needed to take a risk in the hope of salvaging it. Those students who had previously taken risks and succeeded indicated they would be more likely to take a chance again. On the other hand, students who had taken previous risks and were disappointed with their work were much less likely to risk again.


A number of preliminary conclusions have arisen from the study. It is clear that senior high school students accept the need to take risks in art making in order to achieve innovative outcomes. Many extremely insightful comments were offered by students regarding the value of risk-taking and the learning that takes place as a consequence of both failure and success following a risk in production. However it is also clear that, while students happily talk about risk-taking as a pathway to innovative outcomes, most confuse artistic innovation with trying new media or techniques.

Almost all student description of the nature of risk taken by them in their art production related to media or technique. Many spoke of the need to step outside of the comfort zone in relation to working with unfamiliar media. Only a few comments were made by any students about the notion of new forms or expressive paradigms.

From the teacher’s perspective, it seems the best time to encourage risk-taking is early in a project rather than after the student has invested considerable time in their piece. The condition under which almost all students indicated willingness to engage in risk-taking behavior was at home when the work is not on public view and there is no grade consequence for failure.

The relationship between grades and willingness to take risks is complicated. In the Irish setting high-stakes examinations in high schools appear to significantly inhibit students willingness to take a risk when the grade is likely to be impacted, most particularly during the examination. On the other hand students in both countries say they value satisfaction with their work above the achievement of a high grade.

That said, end point grades do appear to significantly affect students willingness to take risks even in the United States where high-stakes tests are typically not given. In the Irish setting the impact of assessment is more obvious given the significance of high-stakes examinations. Both students and teachers said that risks were discouraged in the examination process. The ambition was to produce work that was almost entirely predictable and of a good technical quality.

In the American context high-stakes tests do not exist in the same way that they do in Europe. While students all indicated that if they had to choose between satisfaction with their work or a good grade they would choose satisfaction every time this was often contradicted in discussions about their work when the effect of risk upon the grade was clearly a determinant affecting their willingness to risk.

In relation to the above finding, the pedagogical implications for art teachers are that teachers may need to rethink their view of student motivation in their art making processes. Students are more motivated to achieve their own vision than they are driven by the need to achieve a good grade, except, as mentioned before, in the context of high-stakes exams. In other words, teachers need to remember the poignancy of students feelings that underpin their visual ambitions and direct their instruction to address these feelings rather than to assume students will be likely to respond positively to the promise of a good grade or threat of a bad one.

Finally, some students believe that the value of risk-taking behavior in the art making process could be effectively assessed by teachers who consider the process data gathered, for example, in portfolios or face-to-face discussion. The intellectual footsteps recorded in diary notes, developing sketches, and even student interactions with the teacher could serve as valid data for risk assessment.

Finally, one of the most significant outcomes of the study is what has not been found in the data. The fact that most students conceptualize risk-taking as experimentation with unfamiliar media does little to indicate that they understand the nature of creative behavior. Risk for these students is almost entirely their concern about being perceived as technically incompetent. Very little indication about larger creative questions associated with risk have been seen. For example experimentation with risky content was notably absent in most cases. Attempts to experiment with new forms of representation remains largely invisible in the discussions and questionnaire data.

Given the influence grades have on the likelihood of students to engage in risk-taking it seems to make sense that reward be given through the assessment process for evidence of risks taken in student work. This would require the collection of student self reflections and portfolio data to enable tracking of students thinking rather than focusing entirely upon finished products.

It also seems to make sense to develop some kind of typology for the level of risks undertaken by students. For example trying new media and processes is less likely to result in highly creative outcomes. Experimentation with risky content and forms that challenge existing paradigms should, perhaps, be rewarded more generously as evidence of risks taken to produce original outcomes.

*Dr. Douglas G Boughton is Professor of Assessment, Curriculum, International Issues in Art and Design Education at Northern Illinois University.


Eisner, E.W. (2005) Reimagining Schools: The Selected Works of Elliot Eisner. NY: Routledge.

The New York Times, New York, NY. June 10, 2014. Medina, Jennifer. “Judge Rejects Teacher Tenure for California.” Accessed September, 27. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/11/us/california-teacher-tenure-laws-ruled-unconstitutional.html