Published: Sept. 28, 2018 By

CU Boulder art history students deepen learning through ‘object-based learning’ 

Teaching her first course in her first semester at the University of Colorado Boulder, art historian Stephanie Su decided to make use of literally hundreds of unusual teaching “assistants”: 238 objects of Burmese and Chinese art that make up the King Collection at the CU Art Museum. 


Stephanie Su, assistant professor of Asian art history

Students in Su’s first course, Art and Architecture in East Asia, visited the collection, which was donated in 2012 by Warren and Shirley King, who live in Hong Kong. 

The students are asked to spend no less than 10 minutes in “close looking” — silently observing objects from the collection and taking notes. 

“The close-looking exercise is sort of a guide to give students access to really start looking at the materials,” says Hope Saska, curator of collections and exhibitions at the museum, who designed the exercise based on elements used at other institutions. “It’s based on a teaching technique fundamental to museum education, using visual-thinking strategies. … The students can have immediate relationships with materials that are a little more informal and a little more impromptu than what you’d find in a curated exhibition.”

“They get a sense of the shapes, colors, functions, materials and textures of the objects and try to construct meanings by themselves—When was it made? What is it for? What does it mean? What does (the object) tell us about the culture in that historical period?—rather than having to rely on someone else’s interpretation,” Su says. 

Under Saska’s model, once students have closely examined the requisite pieces from the collection, they form small groups to exchange observations and ideas about the meaning of the pieces.

“In the small group, they come up with three to five elements that they think are the key elements they have observed about the piece. The exercise helps guide conversations to develop students’ understanding of the content,” says Saska, who previously has worked as a lecturer in art history and with museum collections at the Detroit Institute of Arts and Yale University. 

Once the close-looking exercise is complete, the groups make presentations to the rest of the class. Finally, they are asked to write analytic papers incorporating both the class’s observations and secondary sources to refine their arguments.

“It is a student-centered learning approach that uses objects to facilitate deep learning,” Su says. “It uses objects as multi-sensory thinking tools to stimulate students’ imaginations. They learn to observe the objects and construct meanings.” 

One student’s research paper on the technology of glass during the Han dynasty explored the emergence of new objects and colors, particularly purple, within Taoism. That’s something I had never thought about.”

For this semester’s course, Su has asked students to focus their papers on “the shifting notion of the afterlife in ancient China,” comparing, for example, the famous, full-sized terra cotta army created by China’s First Emperor to the miniature figurines in the King Collection—chickens, horses, stoves, attendants, theaters, houses—from the Han dynasty, which immediately followed the First Emperor era. 

“For the First Emperor, the afterlife was a continuation of current life, so everything was life-sized, emulating the palace aboveground,” Su says. “But in the Han dynasty, the notion changed. The miniature figurines, vessels and architecture not only substituted for the real human world, but also constituted a world operating in its own logic, free from the natural laws of the human world. In this way, life could be extended in perpetuity. This notion of the afterlife had enduring impact, even on contemporary Chinese society.”

Although she’s just begun teaching at CU, Su has seen the benefits of object-based learning on other institutions’ graduate students, whose observations and ideas have opened her eyes to new interpretations and understandings.

“One student’s research paper on the technology of glass during the Han dynasty explored the emergence of new objects and colors, particularly purple, within Taoism,” she says. “That’s something I had never thought about, so I can learn things from my students’ interests, too.”

Alice Kain, academic initiatives coordinator at the Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, notes that object-based learning can give students confidence in the classroom.

“It can encourage students to begin to look in depth at the artwork together; I believe that there are benefits of students communicating to each other rather than being told what to look at,” Kain writes in the online journal Art History Teaching Resources. 

“I have noticed that some students new to art history can be intimidated by making observations; that they may be looking at something ‘in the wrong way’ or that they are missing language to deal with what they are seeing. Certainly, teachers are able to provide insight into the vocabulary, but small group work allows for students to deal with some of these other larger insecurities together.”

“This indeed is something new in the field of art history” Su agrees. “In the post-war period, study was focused on iconography, looking at images and being told what they mean, but not really looking at the objects themselves.” 

“This object-based learning approach allows students to apply what they have learned to new situations and solve the problems by themselves. This process enhances students’ close looking, critical thinking and writing, which are invaluable skills for their future careers. They will become more culturally sensitive, being more aware of how images and objects convey meanings in different contexts.” 

But close-looking exercises aren’t just for art history. This semester, two to three undergraduate classes a week, in disciplines ranging from history to English to classics, have been visiting the CU Art Museum to engage with objects from the collection. 

To boot, the museum has been busily evangelizing the gospel of close-looking and object-based learning.

“We have the resources in both materials and objects, and also staff expertise,” Saska says. “So we’re working with colleagues across the states. We are deeply invested in creating exercises in the museum field and how museums can help develop education.”