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Learning Matters in Art Matters

September 16, 2016

A few weeks ago,  I experimented with introducing my students to some basic research about the way people learn.  I was inspired by ideas presented in June at the Lilly Conference, and over the summer, I read recent books by plenary speakers Todd Zakrajsek and Saundra Yancy McGuire geared toward helping students improve their learning and study skills.  In the past, I’ve always explained the reasons and learning principles behind the activities I assign students, but never had I devoted a full lesson to the theories informing my pedagogical approach, especially on the first day of class!

Required for all first year art students, the course, Art Matters, introduces various art historical methodologies, and it helps build research and writing skills necessary in upper level art history courses. I’ve now taught the class six times, and experience has shown that most students arrive apprehensive about the writing assignments, and often have negative perceptions about taking art history and other non-studio classes.  My goals for the first day are typically to build a sense of class community and to explain key themes and learning objectives for the semester.

As I began developing my “Learning Matters” presentation, I decided to focus on three main topics: 1) Carol Dweck’s research on mindset, which seemed especially relevant for first year art students worried about academic classes; 2) Bloom’s taxonomy of learning to prepare them to study art history, a discipline notoriously misunderstood to emphasize rote memorization of facts; and 3) the importance of metacognition to learning.  I hoped by stressing this last point the students might begin to feel more accountable for their own role in the learning process.

I integrated this material into my broader plan for the three-hour class by tying it closely to the course objectives and an overview of the types of active learning practices that I frequently use. Other activities during this time included a “think-pair-share” exercise that had the students redesign the classroom and then vote/realize the plan best suited for class collaboration and student-led learning, and after talking about Bloom’s, a group brainstorming session to develop their own additional learning objectives for the class.

I’ll have to wait to see any long-term impact on the class, but the initial response seems positive.  As part of the course requirements, students must write regular reflections (which they now understand is related to metacognitive practice).  After the first class, they were asked to respond to the prompt “Based on today’s discussion about learning and the different levels of learning, how might these ideas affect your study of art history?” Although a number of the students summarized key points of our first day’s class discussion (a teachable moment to reinforce Bloom’s the following week!), a few offered thoughtful comments that showed new insight into how they might make the most of their student experience.  

An example is one student who saw a connection between her creative skills as an artist to the highest level of cognitive processing, as well as discovering that remembering “things I don’t care about” might provide foundational knowledge to build upon in the future.  Most exciting was the student who felt empowered by the realization that she had the capacity to critique the ideas of well-known scholars and artists. Learning is a collaborative process that requires the commitment and engaged participation of educators, institutions, AND students.  Giving students greater insight into the pedagogical research about how people learn makes sense as a way to increase their involvement and support their own efforts to excel in our classes.    

 

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