Art and Art History
The class I concentrated on was ARTH3519 Architecture 1780-1960. This is a 100-student lecture class.
What did I do?
My target of improvement with the ARTH3519 class was to make the students aware of expectations in an architectural history class at the outset of the semester. I teach in an art history department, and few of the students who enroll in my architectural history classes have been familiarized with the critical and theoretical issues involved with architectural discussions.
1) I administered a two-part questionnaire the first day of the class to ascertain the student’s basic content knowledge, preconceptions of the field, and their expectations for the course. That two-part questionnaire was as follows:
3. Previous relevant classes
4. Why did you take this class?
5. What are your expectations for this class?
1. What do think architectural history is?
2. Why do think it is relevant?
3. What do you think architectural historians do?
2) During the first week of the course, I began discussing the issue of “threshold concepts” with the class. In fact, I shared with them the fact that I had taken part in this assessment institute, and that I wanted to make a better effort in my own teaching practice to identify these issues for them as the semester progressed. To that end, I administered a one-essay practice exam that was not factored into their semester grade the second week of class, after we had discussed basic tenets of English and French architecture in the late-18th century. The basic threshold issues we identified during the first week of class were twofold, and basically dealt with how architects were dealing with changing systems of thought during this period (rationalism and empiricism) as well as their attempts to synthesize the two great Western architectural traditions (Classicism, which was still used as a vocabulary of meaning in architecture, and the Gothic, which was associated with structural innovation). The two-part, fifteen-minute essay was as follows:
How and why did this architect (Soufflot) synthesize Classical and Gothic
How and why did his design approach draw on BOTH the Rationalist and
Empiricist methods of thought?
After receiving their essays and reading through them that night, I separated out some examples of excellent, good, average, and below average answers. The next class period, I read the examples I had selected in each category to the class, and together we put together a rubric that explained why the different papers had received the grades I had assigned to them. The students realized that the difference between higher and lower scores was largely a matter of writing an essay that was not merely descriptive, but also employed analysis (or, more accurately, combined the two in a cogent manner). With subsequent lectures, I would identify the threshold concepts at the lecture’s outset, and focus on those concepts in the lecture. That process also made it clear to me what key issues I would address on student essay exams and paper assignments.
1) What difference did it make?
The first-week questionnaire made me aware that not only were students uninformed as to what art and architectural historians did (even though many were art history majors), but they also had a difficult time assigning any sort of relevance to the discipline. Once I was aware of this, I constantly articulated why the material they were looking at was relevant (how, for example, the issues we discussed in examining 19th or 20th-century architecture have relevance to discussions of contemporary architecture, including sustainability or preservation discussions, and how the ability to “read” architectural form can provide insights into broader cultural or political issues). I also kept them updated on my own professional activities in the field as the semester progressed.
The other obvious difference that these assessment activities made was in exam score results. I have taught this class on a number of occasions, and this semester’s students’ exam answers were much better articulated, resulting in generally higher scores. Finally, and most rewarding, were the students who approached me during and after the semester to say that they had really gained an appreciation for the field and for the discipline in general, and had attained skill sets that changed the manner in which they viewed the built environment.
2) How did the assessment help me make adjustments mid-course?
By identifying threshold concepts for each lecture (one or two primary points), I could come back to those at the conclusion of each lecture, and ask if there were questions and if they understood the points. If they did not, we could review them. In the past, I often relied on the exam process itself as an assessment tool. Unfortunately, students who had a course with me previously nearly always did better on the first exam than students taking one of my courses for the first time. The process of pre-testing and identifying key threshold concepts really “leveled the field” in that regard, and the first exam scores indicated that the students generally understood what was expected of them, and studied material accordingly. After each exam, I again discussed the rubrics used to score the exams with the class and read samples of excellent papers so they could understand how description and analysis were combined in those essays.
What did I learn?
I realized several things of importance. One was that students are eager to hear about what we do as professionals in our own disciplines, and why we feel that our discipline is relevant. I also realized the importance of sharing with the students what I wanted them to learn by identifying “threshold concepts” and, through our collaborative effort of discussing rubrics, how they could achieve the goals that were set for them. I had assumed in the past that I did this in my lectures, but I realized this semester that I was missing some important links to the students. As a result, I intend to do more exam preparation in my classes. I also intent to carry this process into writing assignments such as term papers, and have the students specifically discuss how they would prepare for both exams and paper assignments.
What would I share with colleagues?
I hope the three of us who participated in this assessment institute will have time to share our insights with our other faculty members during our fall retreat, and will suggest it be placed on the agenda.