I've not been writing much on the blog and to my subscribers, I apologize. It's been a long, agonizing year, with an "academic program prioritization" process that led to my major being cut from our college. I will continue to teach, albeit not to art history majors. Now we've made it to the end of the Difficult Year and I'm resetting the blog and my priorities in my position at the college.
Today's post is about setting assessments that don't match learning objectives. I did that for my "finale" for my nineteenth-century art class this past May. I did not want a memorization exam. Although such exams remain the bedrock of much of higher education assessments, especially for art history, I don't find that it tells me much about how much students have learned from my classes, particularly the nineteenth-century art class. In that course, I emphasize that I want them to learn visual analysis: to look and to observe and by doing so, to come up with a thesis of potential meaning just from the formal elements in the painting. For instance, in Courbet's painting The Stonebreakers (seen below) the meaning of the painting can be gleaned from visual analysis.When we examine this painting in class, I ask the students to tell me what they see. They answer with such observations such as: their backs are to us, so they do not seem like individuals; one seems young and the other older; they have frayed work clothes; they are doing hard labor of breaking up stones; they seem in a closed-in space where the only light is in the upper right corner, and out of reach.
All of that is correct. And what that leads to is a thesis for the painting that is this: the men are trapped, in a sense, in labor that will continue. The younger man will continue working until he, too, is like the older man, unable to carry heavy rocks, and instead will kneel to chip them into smaller rubble. The cycle will continue, for there is no "escape" spatially in the painting for these men. There is no social mobility, no "changing careers" or "moving up."
That is all learned by visual analysis, and trusting that observations can lead to these kinds of potential meanings. Of course, art history is more than just this, and we talk about how one would solidify such an interpretation: by researching to find out more about when roads were built, who built them, what was working culture like around 1850 in France, etc. But you can get started with interpretive analysis from just looking.
For the "finale" of the class, I decided to make a "Jeopardy!" type of game. There are lots of free templates on the web that will allow you to make a game of whatever topic you desire. We played, and I was dismayed. They did not remember titles of paintings, or some of the dates, or some of the names of painters.
But then we got to "Final Jeopardy." Each "team" was given a painting and they had to tell me everything they remembered about it, using visual analysis. I gave each team a chance to talk about the painting and then we had their answers.
They remembered so much. When the assessment matched the learning objectives - it seemed like magic. Of course, it was not magic; in class after class after class I structured our time to give them chances to build their visual acuity and trust that they could - and would - learn what the paintings were seeking to tell them just by looking, carefully, at what was placed before them.
I will admit to not being an assessment guru. My assessments often miss the mark in terms of what I have been teaching them. But this time the starkness between "trivia"-like answers versus visual analysis of entire paintings helped me see that it is so important to line up assessment that will focus on what you were seeking to have them learn. I really do want to know what they have learned. It's just so often that the assessments I have been told to use don't do that.
Do you teach and have an assessment that works well? How does it match the learning objectives you have for your course?
Students: how would you like to demonstrate what you've learned in a class? An exam? Something else? I would be curious to know!