NEW WAYS OF SEEING: Reframing the Formal Analysis Assignment through Digital

Each semester I teach multiple sections of a general education, non-major lecture Art Appreciation class designed to cultivate personal engagement with the Houston art community outside of the classroom at Houston Community College. Some sections are face to face, others are online.   My goal for all students is to make them art citizens engaged in Houston’s rich public art community through direct personal interaction.  The challenge with this is that I cannot shepherd them in a way that I might ideally like to do.  I have found ‘work arounds’ for this using digital technology.  In the syllabus I stress the following: The over-all purpose of this course is to generate enthusiasm and appreciation for art in our community and lives. The assignments give students the opportunity to find art in their own community, immersing them into a creative culture.

In order to achieve this goal, much of the work for the class work is necessarily done without overt guidance.   One major pedagogic challenge that I confront is addressing how to develop active engagement in a fundamental assignment in the daunting, often foreign environment of the Museum of Fine Arts.  For years in the Art Appreciation class, I relied on the same delivery systems as my peers, sending my charges out to the museum with pieces of paper, expecting them to do a lighter version of the formal analysis assignment that I would assign to my survey students.  And, while the results were satisfactory, they were by no means enthusiastic.  The students were not engaged.  This was not the assignment that these students needed.  So, I set out to flip the assignment.  Thus began an amazing odyssey with my colleague Amir Bar that ultimately led to the development of several digitally delivered assignments and an online textbook written specifically for this course.

For small art history classes, as we all know, the museum visit and subsequent assignment is a ubiquitous tool for learning.  In a class dedicated to Art in the Community, a visit to the museum is essential for my students.  Many of us remember this formative experience fondly:   Professor and students stand in front of a piece together and discuss it. It can be transformative.  And yet, that mode of learning is rarefied and impractical for most of us, right?  When we teach 5 sections at awkward and disparate times and several are online, the logistics of ‘taking the students to the museum’ is not practical.  But we still want the students to gain a comfort and understanding in the museum.  But the need is even more important when realizing that the students that we may be teaching are even more disconnected from art today than they may have been twenty years ago.  I remember when I first started thinking about this issue, ten years ago or so, I could still take students to the museum.  I was asked the most poignant question by a student: ‘where are the real works kept?’  It was a punch in the gut type of question that this student did not think that he was worthy of seeing the ‘real’ ones.  I try to keep that student in mind when I work on my apps.

The problem presented with the Art Appreciation class is finding a successful way to replicate the experience of working with the students one on one without direct interaction.  Is it possible to make the student comfortable and confident without a real physical presence of the mentor?  That is where Amir Bar comes into the picture.  Amir has an MS from the College of Technology at the University of Houston and has proven to be amazingly intuitive when it comes to learning systems.  Together we have crafted several assignments for my class using Survey Gizmo or Survey Monkey as platforms that guide students through them.

The web-based application for the MFAH assignment is designed to provide several crucial elements.  Firstly, it gives them structure to a type of assignment that is new to all of them.   Second, it is an immediately accessible means to complete an assignment (they turn the assignment in on their phones so the assignment is complete at the museum).  Finally (and most importantly), while they do not have me physically present, they have a way to interact with me through video surrogacy.   They can stand in front of the piece with guidance from audio and video and get clarification of the sort that I would provide in person.   This particular assignment is run on Survey Gizmo and has been administered for many semesters now to great success.  I started it at University of Houston with a class of 70, expanded it to a class of 150 and have now taken it to several classes of 30.  This past summer I ran it for the first time with an online only class.  The results are fairly consistent throughout the semesters.  And, importantly, the students respond favorably.  It can be started and completed at the museum. It is free to run on Survey Gizmo with up to 4 active Surveys and 100 replies per assignment.


Part of the success of the assignment lies in the foundation that the students build before they go to the museum.  Whether they are a ‘face to face’ student or an ‘online’ student, they have preliminary assignments to familiarize them with concepts before they go to the museum.  For the face-to-face class, I provide the students with tangible, printable principles of design and visual elements sheets.  They serve as tangible guides and ‘cheat sheets’ to help them at the museum when they answer the specific questions.  They are supplemental resources to help them with their answers.

I have also added discussion boards on Canvas (HCC’s online Classroom platform) to all of the classes BEFORE the museum assignment to give the students practice doing formal analysis.  It is a ‘lowstakes’ assignment worth no more than 10 points in a 500 point class.  This is enough to motivate most students to participate but not too much to stress them out.  They DO the assignment without realizing that they are preparing for a bigger assignment.



[Edward Hopper, Chair Car, 1965 (oil on canvas). Image © Bridgeman Art Library]


[Charlotte Johnson Wahl, Subway NYC, 1994 (oil on canvas). Image © Bridgeman Art Library]


THIS DISCUSSION IS ABOUT THE PRINCIPLES OF DESIGN. After reviewing the powerpoint on Principles of design, discuss how these two artists approach the same theme very differently using principals of design.  In your answer be sure to use at least three distinct principals.

What are the three adjectives that you would use to describe the Hopper composition?

What are the three DIFFERENT adjectives you would use to describe the Wahl composition?

In addition to this discussion, the online class gets a discussion board on the nature of abstraction for practice.  Since the face to face students practice this in class I feel they are prepared.

What is Art? Who is an Artist? Art and Abstraction

We are going to dive right in and start talking about art….watch this short video from Khan Academy on Matisse’s Red Room and then discuss what your response is.  Do you see what their point is about how it IS tied to tradition and yet how it DEVIATES from it?  What do you find interesting? If you are feeling ambitious, find another piece or a REAL space to compare or contrast it to.


The benefit of these discussion boards is that they help each other with the language and they are ‘low stakes’ assignments.  They are only worth a few points and they are a non-threatening way to throw out your ideas and to use terminology.  Since they are only worth 10 points total, they are safe.  The museum assignment is worth 60 points.


The assignment is the get them to do a formal analysis of Andre Derain’s Turning Road at l’Estaque.  When writing the assignment I chose a work that was a non-lending piece from the permanent Beck collection. That is crucial if you intend to run an assignment for several semesters.  I have written creative assignments before only to find that the curators ‘rehang’ the works or put them in storage the next semester.  The moral of the story is: know your local collection.

[André Derain, The Turning Road, L’Estaque. 1906 (oil on canvas). The Audrey  Jones Beck Building 223 BECK GALLERIES Accession Number74.138]


I figured out that my success lay in my ability to get the students to mirror my behavior.  The way to do this was to offer them a sample formal analysis. ‘I do one’ ‘You do one’.  That is the model.  I do a formal analysis of the Manguin Port of Saint Tropez and they mimic it with the formal analysis of the Derain.  They are contemporary pieces, both by Fauvist artists.  Proximity is important to me.  The Manguin piece is no more than 10 steps from the Derain.


The wall panels give them this Period style similarity for the student who wants more.  Students read my responses or they can do it solo.  That is the ‘handholding’ nature of the exercise.  So, what do I ask them?


[Henri Charles Manguin, French, The Port of Saint-Tropez, 1905 (oil on canvas). The Audrey Jones Beck Building 223 BECK GALLERIES  Accession Number 98.290]



Some of these questions are designed to help students acclimate to learning about museum labels and how to read them.  Others are to teach them about prioritizing the information.  For instance, here is the first time that I am giving them the complex idea of the relevance of location and time as significant to style.  When they read the label about Fauvism they will learn about it as specific to this time and place.  That will clue the more sophisticated ones into the importance of remembering dates.  Also, for the ones who had the online discussion board, they MIGHT remember that Matisse is from the same period. That is a layer of learning that is for the extremely sophisticated learner.  The questions are designed to build on themselves and to reinforce learning from the earlier exercises.  The types of questions asked are designed to get them to both look deeply and to use the visual elements, principles and design and compositional elements.  This does not get them to write a formal paper.  It does ask them for small discrete pieces of information.  I have redesigned my class so that other assignments provide the opportunity to write longer papers.

My more patient and diligent students will assiduously shadow me by watching me do the formal analysis of the Manguin painting first.   They will also have with them the resource pages (either digitally on Canvas or printed out) that discuss the principles of design and the visual elements. I am not asking them to write out an essay. I am asking for each piece broken down in pieces.  Much of this is about close looking and becoming confident in using the language.  Other students will read a few of the answers for guidance on the questions that confuse them or that they want more clarification on.  Either way they benefit.  I do not specify anywhere in the instructions that they must answer in complete sentences.  Interestingly, I have been surprised that with the longer questions, I do get complete phrases.  And, despite the venue for submission for the majority of the them (their phones), I have NEVER had anyone submit it in ‘text-speak’.

I encourage them to complete it at the museum for several reasons.  First: I believe that if they do push submit they are more likely to spend a little extra time at the museum in free exploration.  This time is invaluable bonus time.  It will give them personal confidence.  Second:  I suspect (though I have no empirical evidence) that the students who focus on completing the assignment at the museum will look more closely than the ones who intend to ‘do it later at home’.  I have control questions to test this theory.  One is the question about Derain signing the painting.  The other is the question about the frame.  Both of these must be answered at the museum.  There is not a published image online of the Derain framed, to my knowledge. Nor is the signature visible from the online images (see above for validation).  So, these discourage students from trying to do it at home.


So, one of the goals of Art Appreciation is the create Art Citizens.  I need them to accomplish three major things in this assignment.  I need them to find the museum (it is a HUGE city!).  I need them to confidently  use art vocabulary in an appropriate and meaningful manner.  And, I want/need them to enjoy themselves hopefully to the point of wanting to come back….maybe even to the point of taking back their family and friends.  I want to create life-long learners not just assignment takers.  So at the end I do ask them for their feedback on the assignment to gauge their response.  Sometimes they have had technical difficulties.  Sometimes their battery died.  Sometimes parking was bad….But sometimes it all worked out.  Here are some positive responses from last Spring:

  • I loved how this assignment works because it lets you be in the museum and work in there and I liked the question they were simple but straight to the point in regards to the painting.
  • Thanks for simplifying this assignment in this format. It was very interactive; and the sample questions and answers were guiding posts along the way.
  • This assignment has a very good way to improve people’s learning process and art appreciation. The only negative aspect that I felt was that there were no chairs in front of the painting to be able to do the work more comfortable.
  • This assignment really made me appreciate more the work and elements that artists take into account to create pieces of art. Art is really special and artist real smart and creative
  • This assignment gave me a sort of vacation from the real world. Being a senior in high school with a whole lot of stress, being at the museum brought me peace.

I have now been using this app for around 6 years.  I will be able to provide data on the impact of the addition of the discussion boards soon.  I hope that I can continue to use this for many years to come.  Survey Gizmo is free to use at a basic level for anyone. You can run 3 assignments of up to 75 takers per assignment.  Schools often have subscriptions for use.  Check it out!

One response to “NEW WAYS OF SEEING: Reframing the Formal Analysis Assignment through Digital”

  1. Zoe says:

    Can you share the questions you ask them in the survey?

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