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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Tarker, MFA, Ed.D.

If I Could Remove My Head - Reflections on Incorporating Art into Study Skills Workshops

Like the majority of colleges, the community college I work at shifted to remote operations during spring quarter, 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As we made this shift, media outlets and colleagues at school were reporting similar themes. People were having a hard time concentrating. People felt easily distracted. There seemed to be a decline in motivation and engagement among students. And people were experiencing increased levels of anxiety.

So in response to this, I decided to experiment with a series of workshops to explore how incorporating art practice into study skills workshops could address concentration, motivation, and anxiety issues among students. The culture of higher education often disregards the value of art practice as a mode of meaning making and developing knowledge, but using the arts to diversify how we help students learn may have benefits that promote equity in the classroom.

Promoting equity in higher education must involve recognizing that not every student learns in the same way. While flashcards to memorize facts and vocabulary may work for some students, this rote method may not be productive for all students. Instead, we should explore how giving students permission to use more creative activities may benefit their learning.

I use the word “permission” because adult students may face several cognitive barriers to using art methods to improve their learning. One, they may think activities like doodling or writing a song are childish activities best suited for elementary school kids, not college students. However, even John Dewey saw the value of art for adult learners. It is useful to remind participants in workshops like these that art is a tool to construct knowledge, not just an aesthetically pleasing artifact.

Second, adult students may be resistant because they will naturally focus on the value of the product rather than the process. People tend to value art based on the perceived quality of the finished product, so this can create resistance because students may fear that their final product with be judged harshly. So, it is important for facilitators who introduce students to techniques like these to emphasize that the purpose is not to produce great art, but rather to use the technique to deepen their learning. Emphasize the process, not product.

I also found it important to clearly connect the workshops to verbs that describe levels of learning in Bloom’s taxonomy. This helped ensure that the workshops were focused on developing discrete academic and study skills.

Each lesson was also scaffolded in similar ways. A learning outcome was defined, the agenda reviewed, and ground rules established addressing some of the aforementioned topics. Then participants were given time to identify a study challenge they were currently experiencing. They wrote these down and shared out. Next, I discussed the artistic activity we were engaging in with a few simple guidelines. As part of this, I showed my attempts at using the technique for two reasons.

One was to provide participants with a model of a product. I always emphasized that we could not ever produce a final product in a workshop like this due to time constraints, but we could develop an understanding of the process of using the technique we were exploring for future use.

Two, I wanted to alleviate any anxiety participants may still be feeling about their artwork being judged – because I felt sure my feeble models clearly demonstrated that this was not the case. Afterward, participants spent 10-minutes creating their artistic piece, and then another 10-minutes sharing out and reflecting on the experience with a focus on how they might use this technique when studying in the future.

Below are summaries of the three “Joy of Making Art Through Studying” online workshops that we offered with a brief description of the activity, discoveries made when delivering them, and responses from participants. Four to five participants attended each workshop. Some were students, but others were faculty interested in exploring these approaches as techniques they could incorporate into their learning process.

The first workshop focused on using a creative writing exercise to help participants develop a monologue. My hypothesis was that this activity would help students with summarizing and explaining concepts. I asked them to choose a picture from the photo series Humans of New York. The person in the picture they chose would be the character speaking the monologue. Then they had to choose a person the character was speaking to – a child, grandparent, etc. They were then given ten minutes to quickly write their monologue. I emphasized that they should play and have fun distilling their knowing and explaining a concept in their character’s words.

Surprisingly, as participants shared their monologues, I noticed they were not necessarily using this activity to practice explaining or summarizing a concept. Instead, each used their monologue to try and practice communicating an idea to someone. One participant wanted to talk to the leadership of a climate change activist group she belonged to about how their meetings could be more engaging if they added a little more creativity to them. Another was an early childhood educator working remotely who wanted to communicate to parents about the importance of play in learning. She said that the parents she worked for often over-emphasized traditional academics, and did not seem to understand that children learned through playing as well. Both reported afterward that they used what they had developed during the workshop to communicate to their groups. The early childhood educator in particular developed a brilliant metaphor. Having chosen a picture of an old man as her character, she had him explain to his son that if he could remove his head and place it on a young person’s body – what would he do – dance and play – or do academic worksheets?

The second workshop involved using doodling and drawing to improve memorization and understanding as well as to teach annotation and note-taking. For this workshop, I introduced participants to the concept, and then I asked them to doodle and draw their notes while watching a Ted Talk “Drawing in Class” by Rachel Smith. In this Ted Talk, she introduces the idea of visual note taking to improve memorization and understanding, providing useful advice about how to get the most out of this method. Afterward, participants shared out their doodle notes, and we discussed how they could apply this technique to their tool box of study skills. All reported that they could see the usefulness of this technique, and they would continue practicing with it.

The final workshop in the series focused on using song and poetry to improve memorization and understanding. For this workshop, I spliced a number of excerpts of songs that had been created to help memorize terminology together into an MP3 file. After listening to it, we discussed the techniques different people used such as parodying a famous song and then incorporating key vocabulary words into it. They then wrote their own songs. Again, all participants reported that they thought this approach could be useful and would try it in the future.

In one of the first workshops, a participant stated that the activity helped her get out of her head to think differently about the problem she had been struggling with In the these anxiety filled times when people feel more and more isolated, activities like these can also help students get out of the bubble of their everyday thinking processes – another variable to assess when introducing students to art informed study skills.

I’m planning on running this sequence of art informed study skills workshops in the future, using the discoveries described above to strengthen them. Overall, the response was positive. The next phase will also involve incorporating more data gathering instruments to help determine if these are productive study skills approaches.

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