Creative Assessments for Creative Art History Teaching

Pedagogical evolution and innovation in art history increase student engagement and ‘buy-in.’ Innovations also keep instruction from feeling stale for both the students and instructors. Innovation also can remind us why we keep walking into the classroom.  An AHTR Weekly post by Cara Smulevitz from April 2018 about her move from the traditional “high-stakes exams + research paper model” to a structure focused on “multi-option creative assessments” helped to bring me out of an existential teaching spiral of doom last spring. 

A couple years earlier, I had found myself googling something like ‘how do I teach nonwestern art history.’ As a recent PhD in anthropological archaeology, I felt unprepared returning to the arena of my undergraduate art history degree. Through that search, I found AHTR. The lesson plans were invaluable as a starting point and gave me confidence to design an introductory nonwestern survey that wouldn’t just sound like an anthropological tour of cultures. In exploring AHTR further, I found a platform focused on the types of pedagogical innovation that I had been striving for since I started teaching anthropology and archaeology as a grad student. 

Addressing students’ needs

Like many in the AHTR community, I’ve tried to shake things up. Most of my students are studio or graphic design majors, required to take art history courses by their degree plans. (They often phrase it as being “forced” to learn art history.) I’ve been increasingly dissatisfied with what value traditional slide identification assessments offer for student learning. In my experience, they serve the grade much more than they serve insight, practice, or engagement. Adhering to a learner-centered approach, I regularly assign a participatory activity I call #hints for which students create hypothetical social media hashtags about artworks that they submit on index cards with brief explanations. They continually surprise me with their wit and creativity. I highlight some the best #hints when reviewing previous material and as actual hints on assessments. This gives the students a sense of ownership over the course and we always get a good laugh. I’ve also found that students make connections to contemporary media that I would not have considered. For example, I learned about the interesting appropriation of ancient Jomon flame rim vessels of Japan in the video game Zelda: Breath of the Wild. These #hints are one of the inspirations for my newly developed course entitled “Ancient Art in Contemporary Visual Culture.”

In terms of assessment, several semesters ago I implemented what I call VIZ IDs, or visual identifications, as an option on traditional slide ID tests. Students sketch an artwork and label facets of its significance according to a series of ‘landmarks’ highlighted in lecture. Visually minded students often struggle with the text-based memorization requirements of the slide ID but excel at recalling and visualizing important aesthetic or compositional qualities that relate to meaning. For studio and graphic design majors, the VIZ ID option helps them to visually engage with historic artworks in ways that can impact their own art making and increase the relevance they attribute to art history.

As an alternative to writing a final paper, I’ve offered art majors the option of producing an artwork and an academically written artist statement inspired by their experience in the class. It took me several semesters to situate the guidelines and rubrics for these projects comfortably. But since the beginning, I have been blown away by how students can represent their learning to such a better degree when given the opportunity to follow their preferred mode of expression. Students are still required to meet academic writing standards, such as citing sources and presenting a point of view, but this alternative allows them to focus on the type of writing that will be most relevant to them in the future. I started an online project exhibition called UTA Art History Matters to show off many of these projects with excerpts from artist statements. Glass arts, digital illustrations, research papers, and educational activities mingle in that exhibition to demonstrate the positive impact art history education can have for all students who make their way into our classrooms. 

License to experiment 

Fast forward to last spring and the existential spiral. I had just finished grading the first test for an intermediate course on ancient Egypt and the Near East. That class was engaged and participatory, but, inevitably, memorization-based assessments bring out the worst in many students (anxiety, apathy, anger, etc.). I sought help from AHTR and found Cara’s post. She described the creative options she offered to her students and the types of submissions she received. Following Cara’s lead, I offered my students four application project options that they could submit as a replacement of the last exam of the semester. In addition to the remix (or mashup), brief research essay, and documentary video options presented by Cara, I also offered an exhibition design option. All options required an academic document discussing their project with references to class discussions and external sources.  

About half the class chose to submit a project replacement. Those who chose to stick with the exam said that it was easier, and they were more familiar with the expectations. The challenge to be creative and apply one’s understanding can be daunting. For many students, it seems more straightforward to memorize titles, artists, period, etc. But learning outcomes can be superficial and fleeting. Memorized detail often doesn’t stick long term. 

Almost all who submitted project replacements chose the remix/mashup option. Many of them submitted creative, well-considered, and contextualized applications of class discussions, demonstrating that their experience in the course reached beyond surface learning. Some students struggled with articulating their ideas and others with following directions. These are larger issues that I don’t think undermine the success of the assessment strategy. The students that chose the application challenge found an opportunity to combine their art-making skills with class content that increased the likelihood they could be successful and earn a grade they would be happy with. 

Results and reflections

Since first using Cara’s strategy in the spring, I’ve also implemented it in a 5-week upper level summer course. I assigned students a series of application projects of increasing difficulty and a final project ‘exhibition,’ where students present an improved and expanded version of a previously submitted project and present it to the class. In addition to the options described above, students could also choose to write public blog posts, create physical art objects and artist statements, or develop an art education activity for a target grade level. For each option, students submitted an academic paper with references to demonstrate their understanding of course themes and relevant artworks. Most studio or graphic design majors chose to make art objects or write blog posts. Most art history majors chose to write research papers or create exhibition designs. These projects allowed them to practice, demonstrate, and hone skills that are directly relevant to their interests, while upholding academic art history standards of writing and attribution. 

In terms of course grades, the projects are weighted to encourage improvement, based on formative feedback, and to not overly penalize students with less experience in art making or writing. To ensure that grades reflect learning outcomes relevant to art history, I try to develop rubrics that do not focus on artistic merit but on the demonstration of understanding of course content and improvement. Thus, feedback is crucial and consumes most of my grading time.  

Students in this recent course have once again blown me away. They have pursued themes of cultural appropriation, authenticity in art, and art world ethics  through their own lens. Their perspective and creative interpretations have also allowed me to continue to learn more about these topics, and I plan to use artworks created by students of this semester as examples for discussion the next time I teach this course.. That is one of the most satisfying and valuable results of my move to creative assessment.  This cycle makes the course itself a creative endeavor.

4 responses to “Creative Assessments for Creative Art History Teaching”

  1. Elise L Smith says:

    Wonderful ideas here! Thanks so much. I’d love to know more about the #hints activity. Could you give a few examples of what the students came up with? And is this all done just by writing on the index cards, or done online? Thanks again!

    • Leah McCurdy says:

      Thanks, Elise. #hints is one of my students’ favorites. They love seeing their #hint on the review and quiz slides. I experimented with having them submit on a social media site or online but it just encouraged students to be on their devices in class (which I find exceedingly annoying, though I know others are less irritated by it). I use the index cards as a way to take attendance and to assess participation each class session (thus, why I don’t use an LMS discussion board type submission). So when it is a #hints day, I ask them to provide the #hint, the artwork details that it relates to (as a way to practice remembering that info), and a brief explanation of why the hashtag works for that artwork. I started asking for the explanation because they pull from song lyrics, movies, and games that I’m not familiar with. I choose those that hit the mark the best to share with the rest of the class. I’ve found this works for me but I know there are many other ways to incorporate the #hints idea.

      There are so many great examples. The ones that I have on my mind right now relate to early African arts from my large nonwestern survey.

      Running Woman Rock Art Painting from Tassili N’ajjer, Algeria: #WWForestD?(as a hint to the title of “running”); #footloose (because it probably depicts dancing more than running); #simbasuncle (because it depicts SCARification).

      Benin Kingdom Bronze Plaque depicting Warrior Chief and Attendants: #squad (based on the visual qualities of the chief and attendants, linking to the title of the work); #largerthanlife (because it is one of our first examples to highlight hierarchy of scale); #cameandtookit (because I highlight the British Punitive Expedition that resulted in these plaques and other Benin artifacts being in the British Museum collection).

      Other examples from my Egyptian and Near East class:

      Neo-Assyrian Stele of Ashurnasirpal II: #slampoetry (because he is depicted doing the Assyrian snapping gesture of worship)

      Throne of King Tutankhamun: #laz-e-boy (referring to the armchair style and King Tut’s posture and the relevance of his medical condition to the history of the 18th Dynasty).

      I hope those examples offer a picture of the variability and fun that can comes from #hints. As I mention in the post, several students submitted #breathofthewild for a hint about the early Japanese Jomon vessels. When I brought it up the next class, almost everyone knew the reference.

  2. Cara Smulevitz says:

    So glad my post was helpful Leah! I love your ideas here– particularly the VizID option, which is such a great way to make the memorization element of art history assessments more meaningful. I’m definitely going to think about ways I can integrate that into some of my courses. Thanks for sharing these valuable ideas and reflections!

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