How to Succeed in Your First Art History Course

Are you taking your first art history class? If you’re unsure of how to succeed in an art history class, or if you’re overwhelmed with the names you can’t pronounce and the dates you can’t remember, then this post is for you!

Let’s walk through ways to succeed in an art history class.

1: Attendance is Key

It’s difficult to succeed in any class without attending, especially art history. It sounds cliché, but in lectures, professors often expand on the content in the book and tell a fuller story that’s easier to understand and remember. Many professors welcome questions during lecture, so you can ask for clarification. Additionally, attending discussion section is also important. Sections are often designed to prepare you for exams. For example, an activity might ask you to compare two images using their formal elements, and this type of question is very common on exams. Therefore, attendance is critical!

2: Art History Notetaking

What’s the best way to take notes?

First, write the title of the image, as well as its important information, such as the artist or culture, location, date, and medium (if it’s a sculpture or a building). This information, also called tombstone information, is often in your textbook, but if you don’t write at least the image title, it will be hard to review your notes later.

Second, don’t just write what’s on the PowerPoint. If there are key vocabulary words or concepts on the screen, you should always write them down, but also write more.

Third, write the story the professor is trying to tell. When a professor lectures on an image, they are telling you a story. Be sure you can retell that story, with some attention to detail, on the exam.

Fourth and finally, don’t rely on your memory alone in lecture! Many students are mesmerized by the pictures, and don’t take notes because “they’ll remember.” While you may remember, you also may forget, or get confused, so taking notes is critical.

Other than class notes, you may also take notes on readings. Be sure to read the textbook before going to lecture or discussion section. Readings are often short (10-15 pages), and give you a context for what you’ll learn. When I read, I often don’t take notes the first time, but I wait until after I see what images the professor emphasized. At that point, I go back, and re-read those sections, and take notes on them. For example, if the Parthenon is on the study guide for the exam, I re-read the pages about the structure and its sculptural elements, and take detailed notes.

3. Preparing for the Exam

Many students dread art history exams, and think they’re doomed. Not true! If you go to class, pay attention and do the readings, you’re already more prepared than you know!

I recommend making flashcards for art history exams. Put the image on one side, and put the “tombstone information” and the “story” on the other. This story should be a synthesis of your lecture notes, discussion notes and notes from the textbook. Study the comprehensive story so you can re-tell it on the exam using specific vocabulary from lecture or the book, such as hierarchy of scale, krater or registers.

As you prepare, don’t be afraid to ask for help! Your TAs and professors have office hours, so visit them. Ask questions about content, or how to answer a question if you’re not sure about the best approach.

Pro-tip: don’t ask how long the answer should be – instead, ask how much detail you should include, or what the best approach is for a broad question.

Art history classes and exams are nothing to be afraid of. They’re a great way to learn more about history in a new manner. After taking your art history class, you’ll be able to give all your friends a tour of your favorite museum!

Have you ever taken an art history course before? What note-taking tips can you offer? Share in the comments!

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