When the Projector Fails: Transforming the slide exam with personal digital devices

 For several years I’ve been experimenting with helping my students use their personal digital devices to learn to be active viewers and collaborators. On their screens, students can enter a searchable world of almost unlimited virtual images.  This technology permits two different changes to traditional art history pedagogy: changing content, and changing skills for approaching and understanding that content. I’ll show how I do this in the context of testing.

Let’s begin with content. The tile format of Google Images (used by ArtSTOR, in commercial web design format such as on WordPress) offers a view of many images at once, across time and space. These days we take this phenomenon entirely for granted, but when Google Images debuted back in 2001, I had found it a revelation for teaching. Looking at so many examples of artworks simultaneously, students could get a greater understanding of art than having to extrapolate from the limited set offered by the typical teaching canon.

Secondly: how could this content, this larger set of images, be best used by students in the context of exams? I discovered a solution by accident. One day in 2011, when I was about to give a test, the classroom technology malfunctioned, and I couldn’t use the projector. So, right there in class, I emailed my students the test (a Powerpoint) and had them write their answers on paper. Then I had them photograph their papers with their smartphones and submit them online as image files, which I graded electronically. So I turned the communal test into a private exercise.

(By the way, the use of paper was to prevent internet “cheating,” i.e. looking up the images on Google’s Reverse Image Search (debuting in 2011). Since then I’ve learned to make cheating irrelevant. Instead, for an identification of an unknown image, I ask students to explain why they looked up the image they did, and how did they know. They only earn 2 points out of 10 for correct answers unless they can give a compelling report of their thought processes.)

Over the years I’ve adapted this accidental solution into regular classroom use.

When I give communal slide exams (and when the classroom technology cooperates), I allow students to take them on laptops or tablets, granting  them access to their course readings and thus offering an “open-book” exam.  This tests their ability to synthesize information from various sources, just as they might do for a paper. I usually vary the format for tests within a single class over the course of a semester. So, one test might be based on communally viewed projected images; another might be only essays.


 The substitution of private for communal viewing can be a useful way of creating an essay test. Here is my “James Bond” exam for Northern Renaissance art, an example of what is essentially a take-home essay. Most of the time, however, I have students do it in class, which lets them ask for clarification, and lets me gently discourage them from panicked, unthinking internet searches. It’s based on the practice of looking for examples in Google Images’ searchable set of objects, but requires students to use sources of information already provided for them. Test prep works the same way. I encourage students to start out with a their weekly group of images, then launch into a database for more works by the same artist, or similar subjects from the same period, and so on.


Here is one study guide for a “slide test” in Baroque art.  By including a procedure for students to follow, it puts them in the “head space” of searching for objects and contextualizing them before they come to the test. Thus their preparation mimics their regular classroom experience. I approach this as a continuum of activity, a way to reduce the stressful fetishization of THE TEST, and perhaps encourage calmer and more focused thinking.


My learning goals are for them to encounter potentially any object, possibly identify it in some way; have a sense of what questions to ask about it; and how and where to find the answers. My questions sheet, which I distribute the first week of class, is a guideline to the practice of art history: what questions can be asked of objects? (Here is one for northern Renaissance art.) Students fill in this document, using examples of objects to answer the questions.  Thus the act of reviewing material is itself a form of test-taking.

 My long-term project of expanding the “content” of an art history course, and evaluating students’ ability to navigate it, is all very experimental. My gauging of effectiveness is relatively informal. Though I haven’t taken formal poll, it’s clear that students are grateful for the lack of stress in test-taking and do quite well.  I do think continually about the following questions: What is the purpose of an exam in 21st century art history? What kinds of knowledge and skills should we be assessing? If digital devices become prosthetic devices for memory, what is the nature of learning?  Should students’ experience of an exam be distinguished from other forms of work in and out of class, and if so, how?

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