Over 30 years ago, Elliot Eisner recognized a newly emerging trend in art education toward educating students' responses to works of art (Eisner, 1966), an observation that was confirmed in the mid 1980s with the formulation of DBAE theory (Getty, 1985). Today, proponents of both DBAE and multicultural education agree that a general goal for students is to acquire and demonstrate an understanding of works of art (Delacruz & Dunn, 1995). Educators are now grappling with the issues of which works to study and how to make them accessible to students.
Art educators have assumed that with instruction in formal analysis and exposure to relevant contextual information, students can construct meaning from works of art at increasingly higher levels of expertise as they continue through school (Clark, Day & Greer, 1987). Recent research in contemporary cognitive learning theory has suggested a need for curricular models to accommodate the complexity of art understandings (Efland, 1995). However, it is important to recognize that there are numerous students who have limited opportunities for art instruction in elementary and secondary schools, and many who have their first and only encounter with art in college courses such as the art history survey.
The art history survey is a course intended to initiate undergraduates, both art majors and non-art majors alike, into historical study of the visual arts. Typically, the survey satisfies general education requirements for liberal arts students, and therefore its impact is felt across the curriculum. Because of its role in general education and in the preparation of future art teachers, the art history survey has always been of interest to college art educators, but particularly now that the survey is undergoing radical revision (Collins, 1995).
Ideological issues emerging over the last two decades from feminism, multiculturalism, and postmodernism (Silk, 1995) have stimulated a reconceptualization of not only the structure and content of the survey, but also its instructional methodology. Art history professionals and art educators alike are questioning whether pedagogical methods traditionally employed in introductory college art courses are adequate for meeting the goals of visual literacy which includes the development of critical and analytical skills necessary to understand works of art (Alpers, 1995; Clayson & Leja, 1995; Condon, 1995; Sowell, 1991).
The traditional format for the art history survey is the instructor-moderated slide lecture. Affectionately known as "art in the dark" this instructional mode introduces students to vast numbers of unfamiliar images under conditions more conducive to sleep than intellectual stimulation. Because of the large size of most survey classes, opportunities for students' questions or in-depth discussion of works of art are rare. Prescribed study methods outside of class are generally limited to reading survey texts and reviewing slides, assignments of which only the most motivated learners take advantage. Assessment in the survey course traditionally takes the form of the multiple-choice slide identification or short-answer objective questions in which the student is typically asked to recall names, dates, periods, and stylistic characteristics. This type of assessment does not account for higher-order understandings, nor does it reveal students' misunderstandings about works of art.
A number of changes have been proposed by art historians. For example, the Fall 1995 Art Journal is devoted to a series of articles describing the evolution of the art history survey from a chronological introduction to the great masterpieces of Western art, to a thematically-taught global survey, including a much smaller, but broader selection of works. Concurrently, a number of alternative, and in some cases, supplemental forms of instruction have been implemented to help the art history survey student gain an understanding of works of art. …