A Newsletter of the Center for Teaching Effectiveness
Spring 1996

Introducing Art History Through Problem-Based Learning

Mark Parker Miller,
Art History

You have been hired as consultants for a major motion picture. Although the story, set in ancient Greece (c. 425 B.C.), is fictional, the director wants every detail in the film to be as historically accurate as possible. Part of the action will take place around a temple. Your task is to determine what this temple should look like -- including the interior, the exterior, the immediate vicinity, and the activities in and around the temple. If possible, recommend a location (or locations) where the filming of the temple scenes could take place. Include notes about what, if any, aspects of the setting would need to be altered -- either physically or through special effects -- in order to be accurate.

This was one of eight problems that confronted students enrolled in the course Myth, Religion, and Art (ARTH 151) during fall semester at the Wilmington campus (Division of Continuing Education). The focus of the course was the many ways that spiritual beliefs generate and shape works of art. Examples that we considered came from a variety of cultures from antiquity to the present, and from various places around the world. There are no prerequisites for this course and usually the students are not art history majors. For most of the students in the class this is their introduction to the discipline (and perhaps the only art history course they will ever take).

Students in the course developed solutions for the assigned problems by working together in small groups. Each group had five members (except for one group that included an auditor as its sixth member). The course met once a week in the evening for three hours at a time. Each week, during the last third of the class period, students received a new problem. Because many of the students were unable to meet with their group outside of class time, I allocated a significant portion of each class meeting for group work. Members of the group worked on aspects of the problem individually over the following week and then reconvened at the beginning of the next class meeting to synthesize their findings. While the students worked in their groups, I circulated among them, monitored their progress and participated in their discussions to assist them toward a solution. A week later, at the next class meeting, each group submitted a brief written report summarizing their response to the problem. During the middle portion of each class, I introduced new topics by presenting a lecture with slides, showing a video, or leading a discussion of assigned readings.

My primary objectives in assigning the problem "Greek Temples: the Movie" were for the students to: 1) deepen their awareness and understanding of a specific form of religious architecture (ancient Greek temples) and of its role within the religious practices of its culture; 2) find and use appropriate resources for this task; and 3) develop critical-thinking skills through the process of solving a complex problem. Judging from the reports that the groups submitted, the students achieved most of what I had asked of them. They fell short in the area of how an ancient Greek temple functioned within the religious practices of its culture -- i.e., primarily to house and protect the cult statue while the actual worship takes place at an outdoor altar. However, this component was probably the hardest part of the assignment, requiring information that is lacking from many sources (or, at least, found only through careful reading). What more than made up for an oversight like this and what impressed me most about using a problem-based approach for this course was the high level of active participation of the students in the learning process. It was exciting to see nearly every student arrive each week with a stack of books they had found or with pages of notes related to the problem.

Student evaluations of the course were also positive. In the beginning a few students had difficulty with the format -- most students in the class had no previous experience with PBL -- but by midterm all had adjusted well. Part of my rationale for using problem-based learning is that people remember best by translating concepts into their own words and by doing (rather than just reading, hearing or seeing). Comments from the students confirm the value of this approach:

What more could a teacher hope for?

Last updated Feb. 20, 1997.
Copyright Mark Parker Miller, Univ. of Delaware, 1996.