“Sparking” and “Curating” as Student Engagement Techniques


In a recent post on my favourite blog, Art History Teaching Resources, Elena FitzPatrick Sifford discusses Interactivity and Communication in the Art History Classroom. She explains that her recent survey  courses had interactive components:

In the lecture course students chose a subject from the course calendar and were assigned to a group. They were tasked with putting together a presentation on that topic during one fifty-minute class session. They were asked to lecture and to ask the class questions in order to foster classroom involvement. The class met three times a week, so there was still plenty of time for me to fill in the gaps as needed. In fact, I would often treat the student presentation as an introduction to the topic, which I would then fill in in more depth during the next one or two class sessions. There was no paper component to this assignment, but I found that students had to do a fair amount of research, particularly for some of the lesser-published topics. Many of them were nervous about public speaking, but they rose to the occasion, and there were even some good classroom discussions generated from these presentations. Overall, I think it was successful in having students generate some of the content of the course and getting away from the authoritative talking head model of so many lecture style courses.

Her seminar courses incorporated “sparking” and “curating,” two approaches that I would argue constitute student engagement techniques.

With “sparking” (a term that she borrows from her graduate school professor, Dr. Katherine Manthorne)  a team of two students were tasked with starting a conversation about the readings, by  briefly introducing the authors and the main argument of the paper, then asking a series of questions that would lead the class in a conversation about the works. She describes, “After the exchange, I would impress on them the importance of questions that test critical thinking, and they would come back with broader more discussion-oriented inquiries.”

“Curating”  was largely inspired by an assignment written by her colleague Dr. Ananda Cohen Suarez. In this project students curate an exhibition by presenting a title, series of works, location, and researched wall texts. Reflecting on the activity, Sifford noted “when I try this again, I will aim for more interactive moments during the semester for groups to share their progress and for me to respond and provide feedback before the final due date and exhibition “opening.” I’ve found that the most successful interactive assignments require multiple points of critical feedback so that students are getting more out of the process, interacting with their classmates and professor, and ultimately ending up with sharper finished products.”

“Sparking” and “Curating” are both excellent examples of student engagement techniques idea for art history classrooms. I am excited to try both! Elena FitzPatrick Sifford has inspired me. What perfect examples of the Marva Collins, wise words that motivate my teaching. “The essence of teaching is to make learning contagious, to have one idea spark another.”

Thinking Critically

On June 25th one of my classmates posted to the forum a TEDx talk on “How to think, not what to think,” in which Jesse Richardson convincingly argued creative and critical thinking to be two sides of the same coin.[i] He explains: What critical thinking teaches us how to question things rigorously, how to form sound, well-reasoned coherent thoughts and arguments, and critically, how to identify bullshit. But perhaps the most important thing it teaches us that it is good to be wrong. That the ideas we hold are not us, and we don’t need to defend them to the death and that in fact that we can change those ideas and that it is absolutely liberating to do so.

Referencing Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk, “Do schools kill creativity?” Richardson critiques school systems suggesting that their didactic nature does not encourage questioning, deeper understanding, engagement or curiosity, but rather does the opposite, teaching students what to think, not how to think. He calls for educational systems to adapt in order to support the types of creative and critical thinking required for today’s innovations. Richardson makes clear how important it is to get students involved in the process of their own learning. By questioning, learners are engaging their minds, “they are obtaining understanding not just knowledge,” all crucial factors in keeping the spark of curiosity alive.” Unknown As much as “critical thinking” can be a bit of a buzzword in education circles today, it has long been included discussions of art and pedagogy. As early as the 1960s David E. Templeton noted a decade of “increased systematic, sustained attention being paid to critical inquiry, reflection, and thinking in the visual arts.” His article on “Critical Thinking and Teaching Art” asked “What is critical thinking? How do we engage children in critical thought? What effect might the answers to those questions have on the structure of art programs?”[ii] These are all questions I too have asked in relation to my teaching.

Overall I was impressed by Richardson’s clear and inspiring call for critical thinking. I was however slightly concerned about his cliché characterization of creative expression vis-à-vis design. Perhaps I am biased in speaking from a position within the artistic cultural production, but I would argue that creative expression is not “sitting in a loft, with red wine, ciggies, and a black skivy, suffering the burden of no one understanding their artistic genius [sic].” Although seemingly harmless, this is a problematic stereotyping of art versus design reinforces conceptual dichotomies with deep seeded, complex, consequences. Art, even in expressive form has the ability to solve problems as well, particularly when paired with critical thinking and some of the “making connections” Richardson advocates, while being very much a part of the “real world”. In art history classrooms creative expression is obviously a powerful tool for students to work towards “solving” problems particularly when it comes to issues around race, gender, sexuality, class and other topics hotly debated today. 

I was immediately inspired by Richardson’s rallying cry to teach students how to think not what to think. Both creative and critical thinking are abstract concepts that I have listed among the learning objectives for the courses I teach. Great in theory however more challenging in practice. One of the biggest challenges I have is teaching critically thinking in survey courses that typically follow a canonical, patriarchal model of art history, in which movements, styles, and innovation progress from one genius artist to the next and require (according to the department, not always me) an accompanying survey textbook. In “Canon Fodder: What’s wrong with art-history textbooks?” by Alexandra Peers the two related topics are reviewed. She quotes Larry Silver of the University of Pennsylvania, who notes, “The standard textbooks do not begin to address our needs. The art-history survey text has remained virtually unchanged for half a century or more. In the meantime, students who take art history have become increasingly diverse—with interests more engaged with gender or social issues than a generation ago—and they have wider backgrounds.”[iii] With so much material to cover it can be challenging, but I try to create space in survey courses, with these issues to discuss how we think about art and not just what to think. I am very transparent with student as to why we study certain artists in certain ways, and encourage them to locate himself or herself in the social production of art. However, I think the best way I am going to support an environment of critical thinking is to create active learning using many of the student engagement techniques (SETs) I have discovered in this class.

Right now I am working on my syllabi and lesson plans for the fall and I plan on using at least ten of the different SETs outlined by Elizabeth F. Barkley that will encourage questioning and reflection on thinking.[iv] I am also interested in further exploring some of the essential question techniques proposed by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins.[v] The culture of inquiry they call for seems to be supported by John Hattie’s research in which he found interventions such as high-level questioning, attention to metacognition, and targeted feedback (all concepts related to critical thinking) to have a greater effect on student achievement than socioeconomic factors.[vi] Within the context of a culture of inquiry, essential questions create three very important shifts that I would like to occur in my teaching in order to facilitate critical thinking: 1) the question becomes more important than the answer; 2) I act as a facilitator and co-inquirer; and 3) students become their own teachers.[vii] There is a refreshing and inspiring alignment between Richardson’s demand for critical thinking, McTighe and Wiggins’ culture of inquiry, and Hattie’s visible learning in which, teachers see through the eyes of their students, and students see themselves as their own teachers. Sounds like a great class motto! [i]

Jesse Richardson, “How to think, not what to think,” TEDx Brisbane, 5 October 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dluwVks444 [ii] David E. Templeton, Critical Thinking and Teaching Art, Art Education 22, no. 1 (January 1969): 4-9. [iii] Alexandra Peers, “Canon Fodder: What’s wrong with art-history textbooks?” Art News 02 January 2006 http://www.artnews.com/2006/02/01/canon-fodder/ [iv] Elizabeth F. Barkley, Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010): 85. For more on my ten favourite see my blog post, Alena M. Buis, “My Top Ten Student Engagement Technique,” 29 May 2015. https://alenabuis.wordpress.com/2015/05/29/my-top-ten-student-engagement-techniques/ [v] Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding (Alexandria: ASCD, 2013). [vi] John Hattie, Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement (New York: Routledge, 2009). [vii] McTighe and Wiggins, 86.

To text or not to text?

As I start my lesson planning for the fall I am struggling with a dilemma. Do I use a textbook or not? I have already made the decision to “flip” the classroom again providing students with assigned Khan Academy videos to watch prior to class and then move through a series of centres (or “studios” as one of my brilliant friends recommended) during class time. But I am still hesitant to complete throw away the standard art history survey text. Perhaps it is just a security blanket?


After reading Alexandra Peers’ ArtNews article, Canon Fodder, I am seriously considering just doing away with the text all together! She notes “Some schools, such as Columbia and Wesleyan, have thrown out art-history textbooks altogether. Other schools still use them, although they find them seriously lacking. ‘Over the past 12 years, we have worked with, and been dissatisfied with, almost all of the major survey texts—we flood our students with too many places, titles, subjects, and dates,’ says [David] Levine.”

With a similar argument in her blog post, Bye, Bye Survey Textbook! Michelle Miller Fisher observes:

For a start, the books – pick any of the “big name” survey textbooks – are constantly going through editions for the purpose of making money (and improving images, text, etc – but really, baseline profit is the reason). The newest editions of any of them are well over $100. This is a great deal for any student to invest in, and a waste given that many of the students are going to use the books as giant and expensive coffee coasters before trading them at the end of the semester. Pearson, Stokstad’s publisher, did put together “My Arts Lab” which sourced materials from the web and synched them with their own to provide a “multi-media” experience for students that could be set as homework by the instructor. There’s also the “less expensive” $60 online textbook versions. None seem like thrilling alternatives.

Maybe it is time for me to let go of my glossy, illustrated security textbook!

Optimal Level of Challenge

In the model of student engagement promoted by Elizabeth Barkley, the synergy that promotes optimal engagement is created by twin helixes of motivation and active learning.[i] She further describes three classroom conditions that link the two: a sense of classroom community, optimal levels of challenge and holistic learning. I was particularly intrigued by this second condition in which teachers create synergy by presenting tasks that are sufficiently challenging but not so difficult as to discourage. Barkley identifies this sweet spot noting, “Somewhere between ‘been there done that’ and ‘dazed and confused’ lies the optimal level of challenge that engages students.”[ii] Similarly Lev Vygotsky, coined the term, “zone of proximal development” to describe an optimal learning environment where students are exposed to ideas and concepts slightly above their own developmental level. He argued learning was productive when there was a gap in “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers.” [iii] According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is one of several mental states optimal for learning that occurs when a learner is appropriately challenged and deeply engaged.[iv] In yoga we often refer to this optimal level of challenge as “finding your edge”.

My first thought when reading this was, “Yikes, how do I do this with forty (or sometimes eighty) students all with different experiences and levels of development?” My next concern was how detrimental not providing appropriate levels of challenge can be to student engagement. Jere Brophy suggests that when tasks are too challenging students become anxious, but when activities are not challenging enough, they become bored.[v] Along with apathy, anxiety and boredom are key indicators of a lack of engagement.[vi] Even if you have the majority of students working at an optimal level of challenge, my fear is that the symptoms of disengaged learning that may develop in the minority that are not, can spread through the ranks.

Fortunately, Barkley is aware of this challenge and provides three different strategies for empowering students to take ownership of their learning and work within their own specific “zones of proximal development”. First she stresses the importance of providing robust, thoughtful, and authentic assessment, that aims to be realistic, using real-world situations. Second she calls for a teaching of metacognitive skills that ultimately help students learn how to learn. Finally she advocates for empowering students as partners in the learning process.

I identified with Maryellen Weimer’s characterization of today’s college students as “generally anxious and tentative…Most like, want, indeed need teachers who tell them exactly what to do. Education is something done unto them. It frequently involves stress, anxiety, and other forms of discomfort.”[vii] Many of the classes I have taught recently are made up of studio artists that required to take the class to complete their degree and are nervous to be in a more academic setting. Despite their creativity they are cautious and reticent to take control of their own learning. However, as Barkely notes, “Empowering students to be active partners in their learning requires a subtle but thorough shift in focus away from what the teacher is teaching to what and how the student is learning.”[viii]

I think I naturally teach metacognitive skills and empower students as partners in the learning process, but where I really struggle is in creating authentic assessments that meet an appropriate level of challenge for a diverse group of students. For me it will be important to remember Barkley’s proposition: “Instead of reciting, restating, or replicating through demonstration what he or she was taught or what is already known, the student has to carry out the kind of exploration and work that constitutes “doing” in the discipline.”[ix]

In my case this means replacing the dreaded slide test with what art historians really do: they write exhibition reviews, they curate art shows, they interview artists. Along with assigning students such activities I also would like to explore asking more “essential questions”. Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins define essential questions as open-ended, thought provoking and intellectually engaging. Such questions call for higher order thinking, point to important, transferable ideas, raise additional questions, require support and justification, and recur over time.[x] By design these questions draw out unique answers from students and encourage them to work at their own optimal level of challenge.

[i] Elizabeth F. Barkley, Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010): 24.
[ii] Barkley, 27.
[iii] Lev Vygotsky, Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978): 86.
[iv] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Intrinsic Motivation and Effective Teaching: A Flow Analysis,” Teaching Well and Liking It: Motivating Faculty to Teach Effectively ed. J. Bess (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1997): 72-89.
[v] Jere Brophy, Motivating Students to Learn (New York: Routledge, 2010).
[vi] Barkley, 28.
[vii] Maryellen Weimer, Learner-centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002): 23.
[viii] Barkley, 32.
[ix] Barkley, 29.
[x] Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding (Alexandria: ASCD, 2013): 3.

Your life’s mission

In Redefining the Liberal Arts, Sandra M. Moore asks, “What if colleges asked students to declare a mission rather than a major? What if kids were required to reflect more broadly on what they wanted to accomplish in life, rather than simply identify the company they’d like to work for? What if instead of using the academic curriculum to passively “fill a mind” colleges made sure that students were equipped with the kind of critical thinking and communication skills that might enable them to “change a mind” and, in so doing, make a positive impact on our ever-expanding global society?”

Look into your own suitcase…

In a 2012 TED Talk Susan Cain highlights the extraordinary talents and specific abilities of introverted people.[i] Based on her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts, Cain argues that in a culture that prizes bold and outgoing extroverts, it can be challenging to be reserved and inwardly focused.[ii] She claims that one-third to one-half of the population is introverted, preferring solitary activities, and quiet reflection to group work and boisterous conversation. Here Cain is careful to assert that introversion is not simply shyness or a fear of social interaction but rather a way of relating to external stimuli. She provides a brief description of a historical shift from a culture of character to one of personality that in the 20th century has celebrated charismatic and gregarious leaders. Finally Cain concludes by asking the audience to do three things that will empower introverts: reduce the focus on “group” work, spend more time in the “wilderness” unplugging, and looking into our own suitcases, a metaphor she uses to deftly explain the ways in which both introverts and extroverts value their own innate gifts.


As an introvert myself, I found Cain’s perspective refreshing. I can appreciate the desire to retreat from classroom environments to read quietly and process concepts on my own. However, as much as I applaud Cain for raising awareness of the unique needs of introverts, extroverts, and ambiverts (those able to negotiate both preferences), I think it is really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of thoughtfully identifying the diversity actually present in most classrooms or learning communities. Educators must also consider learning styles, multiple intelligences, language skills (especially around English as a second language), educational backgrounds, and other factors that can impact student engagement.

While I appreciate Cain’s rallying cry to end the tyranny of group work and forced social interaction that can be so detrimental to introverts, I think it can be more nuanced. I believe that such collaborative work should stop all together (and neither does she), but I think it is a matter of providing students with more choice. Depending on the activity, it can be fruitful to allow students the autonomy to determine how they can work. As Elizabeth F. Barkley notes, “The need for self-determination works hand in hand with helping students build self-efficacy: they are more likely to believe they are capable of achieving a particular goal if they feel they are in control of the actions required for success.”[iii] Allowing students the independence to choose how they work in different instances serves two purposes. Primarily it gives both introverts and extroverts the ability to work in ways that serve them best, but I think it further allows them opportunities to periodically test their boundaries and challenge themselves when they feel comfortable in low-risk settings. Just as Cain consciously practices her public speaking, I would hope that I am able to foster an environment where introverted students can try their hand at “speaking dangerously.”

As an instructor I feel that it is my responsibility to strive to meet the diverse needs of students, introverted, extroverted or otherwise. Last semester I experimented with a flipped classroom model in which students were provided material (videos, texts, images, etc.) to review prior to our meeting, and then during class time groups of students rotated through three different stations. I feel that this format provides a great deal of flexibility for introverts and extroverts alike. Introverts were able to explore the material at their own pace, before coming to class and extroverts could if they choose to get together with others to view and discuss both before hand and during our session. Thinking ahead to next semester, Cain’s talk has also led me to reconsider what “participation” can look like for introverts versus extroverts. I have always provided different venues for students to contribute for example formal and informal class conversations but also online in a variety of different media. I was inspired by Cain’s talk and will work toward promoting an environment of privacy, freedom, and autonomy that will foster the kind of deep thought that will benefit all students, extroverts and introverts.

[i] Susan Cain, The Power of Introverts (February 2012) accessed 16 May 2015 http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts?language=en#t-57624
[ii] Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts (New York: Random House, 2013).
[iii] Elizabeth F. Barkley, Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010): 85.

Getting Time on our Side: A Pedagogical Experiment


This weekend Christi Spain-Savage, Siena College (Loudonville, NY), Myra E. Wright (Queen’s College CUNY, New York) and I will be hosting a workshop at the University of Milwaukee’s “Attending to Early Modern Women: It’s About Time” conference.

Our workshop engages with the Pedagogies subtopic, as it specifically focuses on time as a pedagogical tool. Interdisciplinary and comparative in its aims, our workshop proposes to examine three literary and art objects from a limited time frame, the year 1621, in order to perform a pedagogical time experiment. As a group of junior scholars, we are interested in how a perpetual shortage of time affects our methods in both teaching and research. Given this year’s theme, we’d like to take the opportunity to be frank about our hurried practices, and to ask whether there might be ways of viewing time limitations as fruitful intellectual challenges. Our workshop is therefore both experimental and highly participatory—we invite other teachers to join us in candid conversation about how we can get time on our side.

This workshop asks whether a delineation of historical time chosen at random—like the year 1621—can be a starting-point for interesting and productive work in both the classroom and the archive. We wondered how, with limited time, we could each develop short studies (also viable as lesson plans) that would relate to one another in useful and surprising ways. Could there be benefits to singling out a particular temporal frame and studying three different cultural objects that emerged within it? A decision to narrow our field of inquiry to 1621 is clearly a way to save time. One of our questions is whether this arbitrary decision can lead to rigorous scholarly work and dynamic classroom teaching. We also ask if it is possible to use the undergraduate classroom as one forum for our own very specialized research, without putting our educational needs before those of our students. With little time to work on conference papers and articles, we find ourselves having to choose between: either a stack of essays that need to be graded, or a proposal for a workshop; either a detailed lesson plan or a stint in the library. Can we find ways to make our research contribute to our classroom work, and vice versa?

This line of inquiry is particularly apt for academics early in their careers who are often faced with the daunting task of teaching survey courses, or introductory level classes with a very broad chronological or geographic range of subject matter. Indeed our decision to focus in or to narrow down may seem counter-intuitive, but many teachers are now wondering if new methods of close, limited analysis might help us deliver broadly defined curricula. For example, the idea of “skipping centuries” in favor of a more “object-centered” approach is proposed in a recent blog post by Olivia Powell, Associate Museum Educator for Academic programs at the Frick Collection and part-time Lecturer in the Department of Art History & Archaeology at Columbia University. In “The Art of Skipping Centuries,” Powell describes Columbia’s Art Humanities course, as an appended form of the canon which, rather than cramming centuries of art into a single semester, focuses on three or four key images, with an emphasis on visual analysis rather than historical context. In order to do so, Powell calls for instructors to “flip the classroom,” a model in which instructors are encouraged to “trade the lectern for the roundtable and facilitate critical dialogues.” From a pedagogical perspective, the flipped classroom is learner-centered and drastically increases student engagement.

One of the drawbacks, however, is that while forsaking the “sage on the stage” role in order to be the “guide on the side,” instructors need to budget more time for preparation. Keeping such pedagogical considerations in mind, we are interested in performing time experiments. Our workshop will ask questions that address how close reading and object-centered approaches in literature and art history can help us not only better value the time and education of our students but also better utilize and manage our own academic time. Abandoning our usual fantasies about devoting plenty of time to scholarly work, we have made a commitment to spend only a few hours on the studies with which our session begins, and to work with materials that are relevant to our own research. Each of the three facilitators will present a ten-minute lesson on a single text or image, and the discussion that follows will address the following questions:

1. Did the time frame of 1621 emerge as a significant connection between these various cultural objects? Are there other points of convergence that seem more compelling?

2. Why does a date of publication or composition matter (if it does)? What do we tell our students about the scholarly conventions of dating texts and images?

3. Imagining ourselves as undergraduate students, what information and methods to we gather from each of these lessons, and from their presentation as a triad?

4. Does an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach to teaching allow us to do more with less time? What are the specific benefits of sharing the classroom in these ways?

List of Readings:

Taylor, John. THE COLD TEARME: Or the Frozen Age: Or the Metamorphosis of the Riuer of Thames.1621. EEBO: STC (2nd ed.) / 23910.

Wroth, Mary. The Countesse of Montgomeries Urania. 1621. (selections)


Buytewech, Willem Pietersz. A Poultry Market in a Dutch Town (1621), The Metropolitan Museum of Art.