The Basics of an Art History course: Taking Art History in College

Ah, ‘tis the season for midterms! Since I’m preparing for several art history exams at the present I was inspired to answer a question I get a lot when people find out that one of my majors is art history: Is it hard? How to you even take tests?
Note: Not all professors are the same; not all courses are the same. This is not a completely comprehensive history of all art history courses; this is simply an amalgamation of all of the courses I have taken so far.
What you do in Class:
The basic routine done by my various professors is to have a PowerPoint presentation and one by one project an image of the work on the screen with a notation containing the work’s title, artist, medium, and where it is currently. This (with the possible exception of its current location) should be written down. The professor will then explain the work and its meaning and put it in context. They will also point out important details. Again; take notes on the important points, or ideas the repeat/stress.  I write this by hand in a notebook, but professors often upload their PowerPoints online and it’s common for people to print out the slides and put them in a type of binder to write directly on. This is generally repeated every class for the semester. It is very important to go because a lot of what they find important is not easily or at all found online. Do not expect a Wikipedia article or a page devoted to the work in the text. Many classes include works not found in the textbook.
The tests:
The general text format that I encounter is some slide identifications (amount varies widely) and some sort of essay/short essay/ short answer. For the slide identifications the professor generally hands out a sheet with the works you should know (which has ranged for me from about 20 to just this semester 37). The information you should know is the artist’s name, date of creation, and the works title. Some professors also need you to know such things as medium, artistic era, etc. Many professors also require you to “answer a question”. I have never been given prompts for this, but it usually requires just basic knowledge discussed in class about the work or artists. I’ve had question like “What war did the artist just fight in?” and “What is the significance of the oranges?” etc.  The essays or short answer questions are usually either an in depth analysis of the work (including meaning, context etc.) or a comparison between two or more works. This sometimes includes a specific question or theme you should analyze, other times just a basic “compare and contrast” essay where you should thing about content, medium, style, context, meaning, etc. of the works. This requires a lot of research and time to get a through answer; these questions (or at least the possible works being compared) of often given beforehand.
How to study:
The first step of studying is to go to class, pay attention and take good notes. Take a lot of notes! More than you think you will ever need! You will be thankful for them later. Next, is to think of a memorization strategy. Knowing names and dates is essentially memorization. What I like to do is to print out the works on a small scale (I have a color printer in my room for just this reason; my campus only has one color printer), and then glue them onto a notecard, and write the information on the back and voila! Flashcards! This, for me, is the only way I can memorize dates. For the rest of the information you just need to go over your notes and study.
For the essays if you are given practice questions or the works you will have to compare write a practice essay. This does not mean writing a full scale, fleshed out essay. Instead, write your thesis and they write out bullet points of your main ideas; without looking at your notes! Then, use your notes to add more details etc.  Read over this to study.
Final thoughts:
So is Art History hard? It can be, it greatly depends on your professor, though if you are bad a memorization and understanding symbolism then yeah, it will be hard for you. Either way, do not believe Art history to be this unattainable goal if you are interested, but also don’t assume it’s some easy elective because it is not most of the time. If you take art history seriously you will learn a lot and be able to sound like a smart, cultured individual, who will be great fun at museums.

I hope you all found this helpful, informative, and in following what experiences you may have had! Thanks!


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