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Top 10 Tips for Art History Students

How to Ace Any Art History Course

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You have taken the plunge and started a survey course on art history. Or you've registered for "Michelangelo: The Man and His Art." Or maybe you chose "Heroes for Zeros: Mythology in Art." Whatever the topic might be, you know already that art history requires memorization: titles, dates and - oh, help! - those strange last names with weird spellings. ("Does spelling count?" I hope so. In my classes it does.)

Scared? No need to be. Here is a list that should help you organize, prioritize and earn good -- or maybe excellent -- grades.

1. Attend all of the classes.


Learning about art history is like learning a foreign language: the information is cumulative. Missing even one class might compromise your ability to follow the professor's analysis or train of thought. Your best bet, then, is to attend all of the classes.

Of course, you can ask the teacher to clarify -- which brings us to the next Top Tip.

2. Participate in class discussions.


You must participate in class discussions. Whether you take your art history class on campus or online, whether the professor requires participation or not, you should contribute to analyzing the works of art and demonstrate your understanding of the readings as often as possible.

Why?

  • The teacher will get to know you, which is always a good thing.
  • You will receive immediate feedback on your art history skills: looking, analyzing and remembering.

3. Buy the textbooks.


Buying the assigned reading material may sound self-evident, but in today's economy, students may have to cut corners on some of the more pricey volumes.

Should you buy some books, but not all the books? Ask your professors for guidance here.

In my classes, the students must read the books and articles to keep up with the class conversation and pass exams. And although I make every effort to keep my students' funds in mind, I know how quickly a book list can become expensive.

If a textbook costs too much for your budget, consider the following:

  • Rent the book.
  • Share the book with a schoolmate.
  • Buy used books at significantly lower prices.
  • Purchase access to the book online. (If you have an electronic reader, you will prefer this option.)

4. Read the assigned readings.


Read? Yes, you must read in order to pass the course. I can't speak for all disciplines, but in the world of art history, reading the textbooks and other assigned articles is crucial. If nothing else, you will discover your teacher's approach to art history, including when the teacher disagrees with the author.

Most art history professors love to disagree or find a mistake. Read the assigned readings in order to retain the "gotcha" moment in the lecture.

If you don't read the assigned reading and are called upon in class, uh-oh! Either you will sound like a fool by making things up, or you will sound like a slacker by admitting you didn't read the text. Not a wise move either way.

Read -- and remember what you read by taking notes.

5. Take notes.


Memory often resides in the hand. Writing down information can lead to memorization with little effort.

  • Take notes in class.
  • Take notes while reading the assigned texts. (Underline first and then go back. Summarize what you learned in your own words on another sheet of paper or on your computer.)
  • Organize your notes by topics.
  • Make a timeline.

6. Make flashcards for the exams.


Making flashcards can be fun. Writing the captions on the back of the image also helps you retain information for the identification portions of your exams.

Include this information:

  • the name of the artist
  • title
  • date
  • medium
  • dimensions
  • collection
  • city
  • country

Once you write down this information, your appreciation of the work should increase.

Try it. It's worth the effort, especially when you share these cards with your classmates.

7. Organize a study group.


The best way to study art history so that it sticks to your brain is through a study group. Study groups can help you nail the IDs and practice analyzing works of art for essay questions.

In grad school, we played charades to memorize medieval manuscript illuminations.

You might try a game of Jeopardy. Your art history categories could be:

  • Movements
  • Artists
  • Subject matter
  • Time periods
  • Nationalities

8. Use the textbook's website or similar websites to practice.


Many textbooks have developed interactive websites that test your knowledge. Crossword puzzles, multiple choice quizzes, short answer questions, identification, and many more exercises might be available to play with, so look for these "companion websites" online.

Or, explore our website and similar websites that have been developed to complement art history assignments -- and please send in your suggestions for topics that you would like us to cover at About.com Art History.

9. Hand in a first draft of your paper two or three weeks before the due date.


Your final research paper should demonstrate your knowledge and the skills you acquired during the semester.

Follow the rubrics provided by your professor. If you do not understand exactly what you need to do, ask the professor in class. Other students may be too shy to ask, and would be grateful to hear the professor's answer.

If the professor did not provide guidelines in the syllabus, ask for the guidelines in class. Ask about what methodology to use, too.

Then ask the professor if you can hand in a draft of the paper two weeks before the paper is due. Hopefully, the professor will accept this request. Revising your paper after the professor weighs in may be the single best learning experience during the semester.

10. Hand in all your assignments on time.


You may follow all of the advice listed above and then fail to hand in your work on time. What a waste!

Be sure to finish your work on time and hand it in on time or even before the due date. Please don't loose points or leave a bad impression by failing to comply with your teacher's instructions.

This advice applies to any course and any professional assignment you are given.

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