Assignments, Teaching Ideas, and Resources

See also posts and resources shared on AHTR (

First Day of Class Assignments

In addition to providing important information about the class, my primary goal for the first day is for me to learn about students’ existing knowledge, skills, and familiarity with art and art history.  While the class is arriving, I often have slides of well-known artworks on screen (ie: Starry Night, a statue of the Buddha, the pyramids at Giza) and ask students to write a few sentences telling me anything they might know about one of the objects.  I sometimes have them repeat this exercise with the same images at the end of the semester as a measure of how their skills and knowledge have changed.

In some classes—especially those where I want to incorporate social media or other technology based platforms–I send out advance google form surveys to learn more about the skills and social media preferences of the class.  I also included some “learning profile” questions in this survey which helped me frame a student-led course.  I’ve recently begun emphasizing information about student learning in my first meeting with a new class.  See this 2016 blog post for details.  

To solve two common problems (the need to learn many names/faces and the need for them to actually review all the information on the syllabus), I devised these other assignments:

Selfie Introductions:  This is a quick assignment students can do after class or during a break.  I ask them to take a selfie and write one or two sentences saying what their image says about them.  I have them upload these to their e-portfolios (I’ve been using Google Drive lately for these) and I review/comment on them before the next class.  They’re also great to have for reference throughout the early part of the semester.  

“Best Class Ever” Course Evaluation:  The goals of this post-class reflection paper are 1) to have students review closely syllabus details such as class schedule, planned topics and discussions, and required assignments; and 2) for me to learn the range of students’ expectations, interests, and individual learning objectives for the class.  I use their responses to make subsequent decisions about specific content and to address any misperceptions about what the course will address.  

Prompt for Reflection Paper #1 (Spring 2015)

Flash forward to May.  It’s warm outside, and you’ve just turned in your last project. Now that classes are all over, you can’t believe how great your experience in Art Matters was this semester!   Write a brief post of 250-500 words (about 1-2 double spaced typed pages) describing what you found most interesting and what you think will be most valuable to your work in the coming years.  Refer to specific assignments and topics (use things on the syllabus or make up other you think might also achieve the course objectives) and explain how they contributed to your experience in the course.

Writing Assignments and Rubrics

Semester long writing project: 

The three assignments below were designed to be iterative in order to provide students formative feedback to improve their art history writing skills.  Students choose an object from a local museum at the beginning of the semester as the basis for all papers in the course.  Each writing assignment is preceded by a classroom discussion and collaborative practice, and students must turn in a draft for peer/instructor review that is included in their final grade.  Students have the option to revise and resubmit previously graded papers with their final portfolio, which is due at the end of the semester;  these must include their original graded paper, their revised paper, and an inventory of how they addressed specific problems or responded to instructor comments and feedback.

3-in-1 Description (adapted from Jennifer Hock, MICA) with Grading Rubric
Learning objective: Students should write clear descriptive statements using strong active verbs and carefully chosen words, which might be used in longer subsequent assignments.  

Formal Analysis (includes rubric)
Learning objective: Students should rely on their own observations and critical analysis to support their interpretation of a work of art

Interpretative Research Paper (includes rubric)
Learning objective:  Students should use art historical methods and academic research, including appropriate citation of sources, to support their interpretation of a work of art. 

Active Learning Methods and In-Class Activities

Class Debate (Proposition: The notion of artist as genius is a myth)
This is an easily managed fun activity that engages most students, and encourages reflection and metacognitive processing on ideas raised by outside readings, research, and class discussion.  It can easily be adapted to class sessions of different lengths by requiring students to prepare outside of class, and used to address different topics and issues in a range of humanities classes.

For a 3-hour foundation-level class where we’d been discussing the historical role of artists, I assigned students  Linda Nochlin’s “Why have there been no great women artists?”; Vasari’s chapter on Michelangelo from The Lives of the Artists; and asked them to watch The Agony and the Ecstasy (available on Netflix.)   In class, our discussion first addressed the notion of “artist as genius”–focusing on Vasari’s biographical approach to art history, the Hollywood representation of this concept, and Nochlin’s critique of systemic patriarchy in art’s institutions.

Students draw their roles (pro; con; or judge) randomly from a bag, and break up into small groups to research and develop their arguments.  I work with the “judges” who decide the rules of the debate and develop rubrics that they then share with each team–they also observe each team’s research process to help assess group engagement and participation. Typically, the judges choose to assess the logic and consistency of the team’s argument, participation of everyone on the team, and ability to defend their position against counter arguments.  After the debate, we discuss the merits of both sides’ arguments, and the judges must write up a summary of their reasons for their determination of the winner.

I offer extra credit for participation.  The winning team receives 3 points; the losing team receives 1 point; and the judges receive 2 points.  The surprise of this activity has consistently been the engagement of the judges and seriousness with which they approach their tasks.

Also see my 2015 blog post on collaboration in the classroom for descriptions of collaborative writing, and a project to translate a scholarly article into a graphic novel–great for studio art students!

For research on using group work effectively in this article by Alison Burke, Using Group Work Effectively, The Journal of Effective Teaching (2011) and in Brame, C.J. and Biel, R. Setting up and facilitating group work: Using cooperative learning groups effectively (2015).

Research and Critical Thinking Assignments

How to Study On-line:  This short discussion-based activity was designed to ensure students engage with assigned on-line resources in an active and critical way.  It resulted from student feedback about challenges with on-line content delivery, as well as my own experience transitioning to e-books and multi-media OERs that demand new models of reading, note-taking, and organization.  

Click here for a pdf of the assignment: How to study on-line.  (Update Fall 2013:  I now have students complete a Google form  which is submitted anonymously.  It allows them to self-assess how well they retained information and helps me know what tools I need to discuss during class).

It’s best to have students review the on-line materials prior to class because of 1) user limitations on library subscriptions to on-line journals, and  2) the tendency to engage with podcasts and videos more passively in a group when they cannot pause or otherwise control the material. 

Note: This activity was the final part of a workshop  “The Technology of Modern Art,” conducted during the first week of class.   The workshop’s goal was to introduce students to key technologies they’d be using routinely throughout the semester (on-line readings, podcasts, blog posts, and electronic portfolios) by having them perform different tasks on their laptops, while working in small groups.   Additionally, the class spends time brainstorming different approaches to studying on line materials.  This is also a good opportunity to share information about notetaking apps.  Some I’ve found useful include Evernote, Notability,, and SuperNote.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Access on-line materials for study purposes
  • Distinguish passive and active methods of viewing videos and podcast
  • Identify strategies and/or technologies for remembering information delivered on-line
  • Recognize different approaches used to read and interact with on-line text

Women in Art On-line Assignment:  I designed this activity to solve a practical problem I discovered the  first semester I taught at Georgetown.  Although the registrar says classes must be held on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, GU students rarely attend.  That first year only ONE student (out of 34 in Intro. to Art History) actually showed up.  My solution the next time I taught in the fall ( Intro to Modern Art) was to develop an assignment that could be done completely on-line (on campus or remotely) and had to be submitted by the end of the scheduled class.  

It also addressed a  major pedagogical concern for my survey courses:  Due to the large class size and quantity of material, I didn’t have a strong research assignment, so students didn’t learn where to find or how to discern good critical and academic resources for study in the field.  

Learning Outcomes:

  • Identify and access academic on-line resources for art historical research through the university library’s website.
  • Use an academic resource to conduct art historical research.
  • Assess one’s existing knowledge about female artists in the 20th century.

Looking for Printed Treasure:  I recently began working with Anna Simon, Research and Instruction Librarian at GU’s Lauinger Library, to develop assignments that would have students perform basic research tasks using library resources on-line and in print.  It grew out of our conversations about what students (and scholars) may lose through increased reliance on digital materials and electronic research methods.  For example, we often find useful resources serendipitously while browsing library stacks for an unrelated text, or perusing the tables of contents and footnotes in journals.  Although we are still developing specific learning outcomes and assignment details, our primary goal is to have students recognize the benefits of engaging directly with archival and print materials. If you’re interested, take  a look at this presentation about this issue in relation to our use of JStor. 

Bring a Book to Class Day 
(ARTH140 website)    (download document)
This assignment was designed to supplement a class discussion of Fauvism and Expressionism in the early 20th century.  Students had been given on-line readings and podcasts to learn about the topic.  After completing the readings, they were tasked with performing some basic research using the library’s on-line catalog, and then choosing a book to check out and bring to class the next day to share as a “show and tell” in small groups.  I also had them submit via e-portfolio the relevant bibliographic information and a brief explanation of why they chose a book.
Learning Outcomes:
  • Use the library’s on-line catalog to perform a subject search using key words
  • Locate/check out print resources from the library stacks
  • Distinguish different types of art historical publications including monographs, anthologies, collections of primary source documents, exhibition catalogues, and survey texts
  • Discern usefulness of a resource based on introductory matter, illustrations, and brief review of text.
Notably, more than one student in the class commented that this assignment was the first time they had actually checked out a book from the library.  In addition to the planned outcomes, the assignment was helpful for introducing material and methodological approaches to the topic that I had not included.  For example, one student brought in a book on Expressionist portraiture, which addressed more representational artists associated with the movement after WWI.  Another found an exhibition catalogue that focused on the preliminary study and production process of a single work by Kandinsky, which challenged her assumptions that nonobjective painting required little thought or planning.  Also, several students mistakenly chose books on Abstract Expressionism, which offered the opportunity to distinguish the later American movement and to call attention to pitfalls one encounters when using key words to search for resources.  

Object-Based Learning Assignments

Teaching around DC, I want students to take advantage of the wealth of local (mostly free!) resources for engaging with art, but it’s difficult to schedule required trips for an entire class.  Moreover, taking 35 students for a one-hour visit to a major museum doesn’t offer much opportunity for active learning.  Below are a few assignments that I designed as individual and group activities to engage students and encourage them to think more critically, both about art and its exhibition in a museum setting.

Adaptable Ideas and Strategies (Note: there’s extensive literature on museum education/gallery teaching techniques that can be adapted to support learning outcomes for a variety of courses and learning levels.  A good place to start is

  • Index cards can be your best friend in museum galleries.  Have students look for a designated time on their own and write down on their card a question, an observation, a connection to class based on one object. Then ask them to exchange cards, pair-share, or facilitate a group discussion in the gallery or post-visit. See how many made similar comments. They can also be useful for reflective writing that you can collect as a means of assessment.
  • Close looking activities: Have students look quietly at the same object for a sustained time and then go around sharing one observation. Group them in twos or threes and choose a work to talk about for 7 minutes. Give them a menu of possible conversation starters. Sketch-based activities can also encourage close looking and are great for acknowledging how sculpture/architecture is seen differently from different points of view. Have them consider curatorial decisions around display, juxtapositions, and viewer access. All of these work best with some preparation before the students visit the museum.

Art and Experience in the Baltimore Museum of Art  I designed this activity with several goals in mind:  I wanted the students to visit the museum where they’d choose an object for study throughout the semester, but I also wanted to encourage them to think about different ways we engage with visual objects today.  Inspired by Jennifer Robert’s 2013 blog post “The Power of Patience,” museum educator Rika Burnham’s work on slow looking, and my own curiosity with how we distinguish the “experience of art” virtually and in real life, this assignment is typically done on the students’ own time as preparation for a series of formal writing assignments that take place throughout the semester.  

SAAM Scavenger Hunt:  This activity forces (yes, that’s the right word) students to visit a brick and mortar museum and familiarize themselves with the collection, layout, and experience of looking closely at primary objects.  (Designed for an introductory modern art survey covering 1850-present, I chose the Smithsonian American Art Museum in order to expose students to a broader range of American art than what’s covered in the course, and to encourage them to think about what–and why–information is left out of the classes they take.)  

Learning Objectives:

  • Identify different types of art on view at the museum.
  • Find information using museum didactics and object labels.
  • Talk about the impact and possible reasons for the way objects are displayed in museums
  • Point out visual or thematic relationships in two or more works of art.
  • Develop a written explanation supporting their opinion about a work of art

Audioguide Project:

Update to Assignment (Fall 2013)
This project, which has developed with the support of GU’s CNDLS TLT staff, builds on formal analysis papers I’ve traditionally assigned in introductory art history courses.  Students work individually and in groups over the course of the project, which develops over the last two months of the semester.   Although students were initially apprehensive, their feedback was extraordinarily positive at the end of the project.  One of my favorite comment came from a senior non-major who had never taken an art history course.  Smiling broadly after her final presentation, she told me:  
“It was neat–getting to be the teacher.  I’d thought I could not ever do that.  But, I did.”

Learning Objectives:

  • Create an original visual analysis based on observation of an object in the National Gallery of art.
  • Demonstrate ability to communicate ideas about art (orally and in writing) to audiences with either specialized or general knowledge.
  • Apply appropriate terminology and concepts in a discussion of art.
  • Collaborate and contribute to a team project.
  • Use technology to create a shared educational resource.

Art History Teaching Resources asked me to write guest posts detailing this project.  See the following links for a more extensive discussion of the details, challenges, and successes:Developing a Student Audioguide, Part 1 (rationale and logistics)Developing a Student Audioguide, Part 2 (evaluation and reflections) 
Grading Rubrics

AACU Value Rubrics

Formal Analysis RubricAudioguide Podcast Rubric

Group Project/Teamwork Rubric

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s