How to Get an A in Art History Class | How to Study Art History

So you’ve taken the plunge and signed up for your very first art history course. Yayyy! Whether it’s the Spanish Golden Age, Japanese Meji Era, or Contemporary African Art - there’s a lot of work to do. There’s a bunch of dates, titles, names with difficult, foreign spelling (Does spelling even count?) But don’t worry, because here are my top tips to help you study for your Art History class.

  1. Attend all of your classes.
    1. Every single one of them!
    2. “Yeah, but my class is really early. How much can you miss if I snooze just a little bit?” A lot of material can be packed even into a 45 min lecture, and most lectures in my school were even longer, so It can be hard to keep up if you missed a lecture.
    3. Your classes will likely go in a chronological order, but your professor also will have some themes or overarching ideas that organizes the material. Your professor will build upon ideas, refer to previous material, and so on. So if you’re missing a chunk of crucial ideas, like a thesis, it’ll be harder for you to follow your professor's analysis or train of thought, which may kick your in the butt later on when the idea comes up in your finals.
  2. Read all the readings
    1. Textbooks can be really expensive which is really sad. If you can afford it, that’s great! Having your own copy means that you can write in it, underline and highlight portions.
    2. Sometimes it helps to ask your professor for help. They know the reading material the best. Some don’t care if you get the latest version, some will require the latest one because it has a new passage that’s important. Some will provide PDFs of readings online.
    3. There’s alternatives to buying a new book. Look for used copies, or renting the book. Look online for better deals. A lot of material can be found online even for free sometimes, or as an ebook, which is usually cheaper. If you have a friend in the class, maybe you can split the cost and alternate. Buy or borrow from someone who took the class last semester. And if you do end up buying a book, you can sell it online or to a student taking the class next semester.
    4. AND actually read them! It can be a lot of reading. It might even be pretty dry or boring if you don’t have a actual interest in the topic. I suggest the following reading strategy:
      1. Read quickly and get an idea of what the article or reading is about. What’s the thesis or argument? Can you summarized the reading succinctly?
      2. Write questions you have. What makes the argument strong? What makes it weak? What confuses you?
      3. Read it again, but this time more critically. Can you answer the questions you listed out? Underline and highlight things that you think are important and write notes of ideas that you can discuss in class.
  3. Ask questions
    1. If you’re attending all your classes and paying attention to lectures, you’ve done your reading, and you’re still finding yourself confused in the middle of class.
    2. (Some classes actually require participation, but there’s a lot of benefits to be more engaged either way.)
    3. If you’re doing all that, and you’re still lost, maybe the professor glossed over an idea that was really important. So likely your classmates are confused as well, but maybe they’re too shy or don’t care enough to ask themselves.
    4. Your teacher will get to know you, which is helpful when you’re asking last minute questions before a final, or need a letter of recommendation in the future. They are also the people who can tell you about some awesome opportunities in the field you care about.
    5. Discussion is also a great time for you to use all those notes you wrote about your readings. It demonstrates that you did your reading, and brings up further discussions with your classmates - maybe they found some really cool insight on a part that you didn’t really think about, or they have a different opinion on what something means.
    6. That why you should do your reading, or else it will become very obvious if you don’t know what you’re talking about.
  4. Take lots of notes.
    1. Not just in lecture, but also on your readings and during discussions.
    2. People can have diferent ways of taking notes that they prefer, or work best for them. Some prefer pen and paper, while others use their laptops.
    3. Sometimes it can be struggle to just find a balance between getting all the information down and having it be somewhat organized so that you actually understand it when trying to review your notes.
    4. This can take a bit of trial and error before you find a system you like, but it can help to pay attention to overarching ideas, how your professor is grouping artists together, and what they’re spending the most time on explaining. Bullet points, underlining, staring things will help remind you things you found important.
  5. Now you’ve gone to all your classes, taken notes and done all your reading. Midterms and finals are fast approaching and you have to study to pass your test.
    1. Make sure you know the format of your test so that you can strategize how you want to study.
    2. Most common are slide IDs, in class essays, and final essays.
    3. My strategy is usually making flashcards to memorize the art works. You can do paper or digital flashcards, whichever you prefer. Since color is usually helpful to memorizing works, I suggest printing in color if you go that route. There’s also apps that you can download to help you, for example, aanki has supposedly a smarter algorithm so that it brings up cards you’re struggling with more often so that you get practice.
    4. For essays, figure out what type of essays you’ll get. Will they be an open prompt where you can bring examples you find relevant, will it be a compare and contrast of two works. You can ask your professor for example prompts, which won’t actually be the ones on the test, but it’ll give you an idea of what it’ll be like so that you can prepare yourself for that format.
    5. A good hint usually, is to look at your class rubric. How has your professor organized each week’s lecture, are there any themes that recur? Put yourself in your professor’s shoes and try to guess what they want you to learn and which artworks demonstrate each idea.
    6. Feel free to use other reputable sources to study. Visit your school’s library for a ton of resources, and you can pretty much Google anything these days. Maybe you shouldn’t put too much weight on a personal blog that hasn’t been updated since 2001, but hey, Wikipedia’s footnotes are a great place to start. The more you absorb, the more familiar you get with each idea or artwork and repetition can be really helpful when you’re trying to recall details when stressing out during a timed in-class essay.
  6. All you got to do now is to study!
    1. Figure out what’s the best way for you to study. Do you need ban Social media sites from your computer for three hours? Maybe you need to set up a reward system, like if you write 1000 words for your paper, you can go eat a pastry you like. Do you prefer to study inside or outside? Does the background chatter of a cafe help you focus, or is it really distracting and you need to hole up in your room? May be you need to verbalize ideas, so forming a study group is really helpful, or you need to write everything down.
Finally, try to make it fun for yourself. I know, it’s not always easy when you’re stressed over a grade, but try to remember why you’re taking your class. Something about it was interesting to you so remind yourself to take the time to not just reading all the words ever, but appreciating the artwork itself. All these words came from someone just looking at it (most of the time) so hey, you can get a lot out of just looking at it too! So there's my top tips of How to Study Art History. I hope you found these tips useful. Best of luck with your studies!


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