Taking Note of Art History

Guest Author: Sooran Choi

Note-taking is undoubtedly an important skill to possess. Studies have shown that classroom note-taking is part of effective learning, and enhances memory. However, the question I would like to explore is whether note taking is essential in every classroom situation. Is it possible that note-taking might actually interfere with understanding the content of a lecture? While some may not agree with my observations, I present my views not as absolute conclusions to the question of note-taking, but rather to encourage flexibility in regard to the use of note-taking in the classroom , particularly the survey art history classroom.

I base my suggestions on experience gained in teaching art history survey courses at community colleges in New York City and New Jersey. Often the student body consists of a broad range of academic backgrounds and training. Many of these students have never taken an art history class, and my class is the first college level art history class they encounter which will form their first impression of what art history is about. Students may be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information, technical terms, and analytic procedures involved in visual formal analysis.

My personal preference for these basic survey level courses is to have lecture slides and information available to my students (usually uploaded to Blackboard after each lecture) because it relieves my students from the pressure of taking notes of what is presented on the screen in addition to, the oral content. It allows and encourages student class participation. My lecture slides function as sample notes to facilitate students learning along with textbooks and handouts. Alternatively, distributing lecture notes before class may also be beneficial since it familiarizes students with what will be discussed during the class, and allows more time for observation and discussion in class.

Some educators may argue that giving out lecture notes and slides leads to laziness on the part of students who, as part of learning, are expected to put an effort into note-taking, compiling and arranging the material presented. This may ring true with students of previous art history backgrounds or at the graduate level, but at the entry level where the objective is to motivate students to appreciate and enjoy art history, this could be counter-productive.

Teaching art history requires intensive visual attention and analytical observation on the part of students. For students at the entry level, it is crucial to learn how to engage in the artwork with the instructor’s guidance along with classmates’ participation during the class. I have found that passive note-taking actually interferes rather than enhances students’ understanding. I ask my students to put down their pens and pencils, and look closely at the slides presented, and to arrive at their own conclusions. Students are asked to “observe”, “describe,” and “analyze” the images presented in class and to exercise their own judgment to place the artwork in perspective. Once discussion is underway by way of students’ original observations, an instructor may easily connect their observations and analyses with art historical knowledge. In many cases, students realize their own observations are similar to textbook content with the added insight that art historical knowledge was developed based on such observations. In the process, students begin to “understand” art history rather than blindly memorizing facts, and maintain their interest in the subject. After all, memorization may last during an exam, but understanding lasts a lifetime.

My mission is to make students realize that art history is relevant in their current lives, and any concept or notion in art history is not difficult to understand once they look at the work themselves. My reward is realized when I read student class evaluations which often state that they have found art history interesting and relevant, and some students suggest that they look forward to pursuing further classes in art history.

I am not advocating a dogmatic approach to the value of note-taking. We all have different teaching skills, priorities, and styles, which also changes according to the type and level of educational institutions where we teach. However, based on my experience, I believe that for the students who take art history for the first time, reducing the pressure of in-class note-taking works to maintain student interest in the subject and facilitates their understanding.


2 responses to “Taking Note of Art History”

  1. SURFBEARD says:

    Very illuminating, Ms. Choi! this will certainly shape my teaching approach this coming year. Wonder if you, or anyone else, could discuss this approach vis-a-vis student study materials — that is, what information do you hold them accountable for when giving an assessment? does this supplant memorization and testing in favor of broader assessments, e.g. presentations, papers etc.? Thanks!

  2. Sooran Choi says:

    Thanks, Peter. When it comes to the assessments, I follow the standard mandatory exam schedules ( midterm, final, and museum paper, a couple of quizzes, and small presentation if it fits for the students in the semester). However, when I gave students a chance to prepare their essays beforehand, ( like a take-home exam), it also worked well for very challenged students with a huge efforts to succeed as they can gather information, study, and prepare their essay before the exam (forming study group, or getting help to form essays), rather than having to write everything during the exam without knowing what will be on the exam. So it rather measures student’s ability to put an effort to meet the requirement, and can see who is working diligently without putting too much pressure on them on the exam date. Of course, the essay questions that students can prepare before the exam are more difficult and require more studies than the questions they have to answer on the spot. (just one option i have tried so far, which worked quite well…)

    I am out of country for my diss. research now, and will write more later when I get back to NYC. Please let me know if you have other ways tried which worked well. Have a great summer!


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