Collaboration in the classroom

Last fall, I had the opportunity to sit down with Pam Stefanuca, Director of Academic Technology and Instruction at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and talk about how I encourage collaboration in class. She’s just published the interview on her website, and listening to it after all these months led me to reflect on some collaborative strategies I used this semester in Art Matters, a first year foundation course at MICA that emphasizes art historical methodologies and writing skills. I felt the two that I outline below were productive in-class assignments that engaged the students in active processing of the material, in addition to fostering collaboration.

The first was a writing workshop where my goals were to prepare students for their first formal writing assignment and to familiarize them with the rubric I’d use to evaluate their work. I set up a shared class folder on Google Drive, which we used throughout the semester for similar activities. During our workshop, the students worked in groups of 4 to write descriptions of a video game called Journey** (actually, they focused on describing the promotional trailer since not everyone was familiar with the game). Each group presented their descriptions to the entire class, and then evaluated the other groups’ work based on my rubric. We ended the class sharing the “grades” they had assigned one another and reviewing how they had evaluated each criteria on the rubric. After class, I added detailed comments and suggestions on each of the descriptions in our shared folder, and had the students use these as a resource when they started work on their upcoming assignment.

The second collaboration grew from the fact that many of my students are drawing and illustration majors. The goal of this session was to familiarize students with formalist methodologies in art history.  I had assigned the introduction to Wölfflin’s Principles of Art History as one of the required readings, and students were to bring to class a list of key points, which we discussed before breaking into groups of 4 students. Each group was then assigned the task of rewriting Wölfflin’s introduction as a graphic novel, and I was amazed by the results.  Aside from the quality of the images (everyone should be so lucky as to teach art students), they were talking with each other about the main ideas of the text and how to synthesize them into a visual format. Because of time constraints, the students chose to upload images of their work to share via our class folder on Google Drive, and I assigned a reflection assignment for them to review and critique each others’ versions of the text. This final step was important because it provided students the opportunity to recognize and correct conceptual misunderstandings in some of their peers’ work.

As I say in the MICA interview, collaboration requires a mindshift away from academic notions of proprietary contribution and individual achievement.  I’ve found in-class activities to be a good way to foster collaboration because they evolve from group discussion toward a clear collective effort to accomplish the learning goals for that day. Building collaboration skills through such low-stakes assignments can be a first step toward integrating collaborative learning throughout a course.

**The class had “chosen” this video game among other student submissions as an art object that most challenged traditional ideas about what art is (one of the first assignments in the class). We returned to the game several time as the focus of collaborative work that paralleled course assignments that students were required to do individually during the semester.

Crowdsourcing Contemporary Art (Part 2): Structure and Scaffolding

wall-floor-piece-1-1976.jpg!BlogAlthough the course content in my Contemporary Art course is student directed, I’ve developed a highly structured framework  to guide the crowdsourcing process in an effective and productive way.

The course lacks a traditional schedule, birthed fully formed from my fingertips on the first day. Instead, it is designed to evolve over the semester, initially based on scaffolding activities that will support the students’ subsequent work.  

These include 1) assigned readings on theoretical issues in the study of contemporary art, which the students discussed extensively in class; 2) a hands-on workshop with a research librarian to discuss appropriate research techniques and resources;  3) assigned “starter texts” that provide a general overview of the many themes, practices, and concepts that are foundational to contemporary art; and 4) working sessions in class to develop a concept map that will serve as a road map for our semester study and as a visual document that reveals the multiple threads that connect the diverse field of contemporary art.  The map has become even more central than I initially imagined, and it will be the focus of my next post in this series.

Student Commitment

The class’s non-traditional structure clearly scared a number of students away the first week, but those who have stayed seem committed (albeit a tad wary).  It has been imperative that students recognize and accept their responsibility to shape the direction of the class.  If they don’t contribute, they impact not only their own experience, but the ability of others to achieve their learning objectives for the course.

On the first day, I asked students to conduct interviews with one another and then introduce their partner to the entire class.  In addition to general “get to know you questions,” students were instructed to ask the following questions to underscore the participatory nature of the course: 

1. What do you want to learn in this class?

2. What skills and/or knowledge can you contribute to this class?

Communications and Resources

A course website serves as a primary hub where class information, discussion prompts, and post-class activities are posted and shared.  It offers a portal to a library resource guide tailored toward academic research of contemporary art.   Another portal on the course website directs students to a Google Spreadsheet Reading LIst, which students populate with various resources throughout the semester.   Students must contribute bibliographic posts each week.  Each must include:

  • 3-5 images/videos (links to jpgs or stable url addresses)
  • 1 primary source
  • 1 secondary source
  • 1 primary/secondary/or popular source

Bibliographic posts are organized according to topics that students have identified on the class concept map.  As the Reading List is populated, students will determine topics to be discussed in class and each student will be responsible for reviewing and posting key points about 2 to 3 of the listed resources prior to class discussion.


Aside from a short exhibition review and a final writing project that asks student to synthesize their learning (more later), the primary assessment tool in this class will be individually produced annotated bibliographies.  Shared with me through Google Drive,  these documents track all of the student’s independent research to find materials for their bibliographic posts, and in their review of resources posted on the Reading List in preparation for class discussion.   Their annotated bibliographies will be reviewed 3 times during the semester to ensure the students are performing the appropriate research, and maintaining a useful catalog of their sources.  Additionally, I’ve had them create and share Journals, which serve as a more private space to reflect on ideas discussed in class, discovered through their research, or connections they find to course content in their experiences outside of class.

Evaluation and Bumps in the Road

I’m pretty excited about the potential of the class to be a great opportunity for active learning and collaborative study; but admittedly, I have a gnawing concern that my plan will fail brilliantly and we’ll all find ourselves confused and frustrated in a few weeks.  Just in case, I’ve planned for a midterm course evaluation in October, which will be conducted by staff from the university’s teacher resource center.  I figured the students would be more open if I stepped out of this process, although I will work closely with the evaluators to determine what issues I’d like to be addressed.   At that point we’ll look at the existing class structure and redirect as seems warranted.

Since day one, I’ve been transparent about my process and the fact that this course is somewhat experimental, and that I sincerely welcome student feedback and suggestions about the class.   Georgetown students tend to be extremely deferential to professorial authority (more so than at any institution I’ve previously taught), so it’s taken a while for them to warm to this idea. Only this past week (week 3 in the semester) am I beginning to see just a few realize their newly empowered position.  Next week, we begin to populate the reading list and start scheduling discussion topics, which should prove insightful as to how they are adapting to the class structure.

Crowdsourcing Contemporary Art (Part 1): A class in progress


This semester, I was slated to teach a 200-level course on “Contemporary Art,” a topic I’ve taught in numerous iterations over the past 10 years.  Most recently I’d taught the class in Spring 2012 as “Art Since 1960.”  Although the students enjoyed it and it achieved the stated learning objectives, I was frustrated in my struggle to convey the complexity of the subject through a traditional lecture based structure.  That experience motivated me to completely redesign the course and my teaching strategies. 

I have now adopted a crowdsourcing model of collaborative research, content development, and study for the class.  I wanted to approach the topic in a way that would be more inclusive of students’ interests and existing areas of knowledge. Crowdsourcing attempts to reduce the inherent subjectivity of any survey class where the professor determines content based on academic knowledge, areas of interests, and scholarly expertise.  Moreover, I hoped it would capitalize on the varied backgrounds of the students usually drawn to the class, especially those with different aesthetic tastes, in disciplines outside art history, and from other cultures.   

Crowdsourcing also allows students to engage meaningfully with a wide range of art historical research techniques and resources. Instead of listening to lectures on slides or reading texts that I’ve chosen, students will collaborate in their effort to find, evaluate, and share useful information on our common topic of study. The pedagogical goal of this approach is for students to develop their own ideas and understanding about contemporary art, based on the connections, observations, and insights they discover through our active research and shared dialogue.

Instead of waiting to see what happens, and then detailing an analysis of any successes–and/or failures, I’ve decided to post some reflections as the course plays out this semester.  This parallels the students’ requirement to maintain a journal recording their own ideas, thoughts, and frustrations about both our topic and method of study.  Over the next few weeks, the students will be choosing topics for study and developing a reading list for the class.  Although the class content will be student-driven, my next post will explain the theoretical and logistical frameworks I’ve established to provide necessary scaffolding to get them started.

My First Flip


In Fall 2012, I decided to try flipping as one of several technology-based changes in my Modern Art class.  The course is an introductory survey covering 1840 (Realism) to the present (!), so needless to say, there are challenges.  Aside from the sheer volume of material, it is a popular class, which draws students with a wide range of  skill levels and knowledge of art history.

I base my lectures on prepared powerpoints that suggest a kind of narrative addressing cultural context, artistic precedents, formal innovations, and a range of ideas about meaning and art historical significance.  I also like discussion, so I encourage students to interrupt when they want to ask questions or contribute comments.  The net effect is I never cover all the material.

Flipping seemed a possible solution.  I pre-recorded portions of my longer lectures for students to watch before class.  I also eliminated a massive textbook in favor of web-based resources and an anthology of primary texts.  My goal was that the outside lectures and focused reading materials would introduce core content, and free up class time for discussion and interactive activities.

Indeed, my students were better prepared.  They asked more questions and hands shot up more quickly when I asked about their ideas.  But,  the classroom lectures still bogged me down.  Yes, there were fewer of them, but we were now moving even slower because of increased class discussion.  The flip hadn’t worked . . . because I hadn’t let it.

Finding Faith in Flipping

Flipping, ultimately, requires a leap of faith.  One day as I was commuting to school, armed with my lecture on Surrealism, I realized I had to throw it out.  I walked into class; told the students I was not going to lecture; and divided them into small groups.  I assigned them to brainstorm questions that someone should ask if they wanted to understand Surrealism, and to choose an image that would help explain the movement.  Each group wrote one question on the board.  We spent the rest of class talking about the questions they developed and the images they had chosen.

The results:  We covered a lot less material, but students brought in additional images that I had not planned on showing.   And it was awkward at first, I had to walk out of the room when the groups started brainstorming just to keep myself from intervening.   Once the class began talking, my role shifted to a facilitator–asking follow up questions, paraphrasing and helping them refine their thoughts, and keeping the conversation on track to ensure my goals for that class were achieved.

Like most classroom strategies, my first flip was not perfect.  But, the experience was useful in helping me adapt this approach to my own style of teaching.  I now give students more of a heads up about how class time will be structured.  I assign them prompts to submit via e-portfolios prior to class, and try to provide them feedback before we meet.  The students say they prefer a blending of slide-based lecture with class discussion, so I’ve tried to achieve a better balance.  Most notably, my lectures have shifted away from a narrative sequence of slides, and I don’t feel the same compulsion to discuss all of the images.  The flip was not the solution, but in combination with other technologies, it has helped me create a more interactive learning environment in my class.