Free improvisation, especially with mixed ability groups, poses a problem for assessment, since it is virtually impossible to establish criteria for performances. Furthermore, any sense of competition within the group will ruin the integrity of the music, especially when the assessor is participating. My solution to these problems is to keep assessment well away from the practice of improvisation. I ask students to produce three performances. After each, the participants and the rest enter into, often heated debate about the music and the politics of its production. I then give them time to take notes. I tape-record all performances, and keep them in the university library alongside copies of the plans they are based on. These records, together with individual students’ own notes on class debates, constitute the study materials for the course.
I assess students on the basis of three short essays, each concerning one of their own, and one of another’s plans and their realisations. At the end of the course they also write a longer, general essay about the nature of free improvisation and their general experience of their particular group. So I assess not improvisations, but thoughts about improvisations, be they philosophical, political, moral or aesthetic. Despite (or, dare I say, because of) the lack of any customary scholarly work, I have never witnessed anything to compare with the thoughtfulness and sensitivity of these essays.
– Charles C. Ford, “Free Improvisation in Higher Education”