The other week I had my Art Appreciation class do a group activity to review composition and the principles of design. They had been studying composition and compositional terms all week. (Earlier in the quarter they focused on the formal elements of art, now they are studying medium and they'll end the quarter discussing art history.)
I put the students in groups of 3 or 4 and gave them a handful of colored paper shapes (scraps mostly, cut in triangles, strips, squares and whatever shapes are easy to make on the paper cutter). Then I gave them a composition term, such as "balance." As a group they were to arrange the shapes on their table to show balance. After each group created a "composition" that illustrated the term, they called me over, I checked it, asked some questions and either told them they were correct or made them redo it until it was correct. Once the finished one term, they took another and created a new arrangement of shapes.
All 7 groups were able to show balance, bilateral symmetry, rhythm, gradation, focal point, scale, consistency with variety, and more. They also had no trouble with combined terms, such as "contrast shown by color" or "scale and rhythm." The only thing groups had some trouble with was "absolute scale," one group eventually "built" a pen-sized column with the shapes.
At the end of the class, after most groups had done 5 to 7 different terms, I took away the composition terms and told them to "create an interesting composition and tell me about the composition when I come back."
Here comes the surprise (for me). Almost all of the groups had trouble with this last direction. They were all, of course, able to make an interesting composition. Most of them used representative imagery, even if their "alternation" and "radial symmetry" examples from the first round had been abstract. They created flowers and houses and girls (throwing up, in one instance). But when I came around to ask about the compositions, most groups started by identifying the subject.
"So, tell me about your composition," I prompted. They responded, "It's a tree, a house and a person," or "two flowers." I pushed them some more, "I see that the subject is a girl (throwing up) but what is the composition?"
Several groups responded to this second prompt by telling me about the directional lines or the symbolic color. Those are formal elements. What is the composition?
So the fascinating thing is that this was a room full of students who had just spent 30 minutes creating compositions to illustrate given compositional principles or terms. But when I reversed the activity and had them apply these terms to their creations, they were lost.
This quarter's Art Appreciation class has been difficult for me because I get little verbal (or non-verbal) feedback from student during class. Of course I discover what they do or do not understand (or how much of their understanding they can communicate) when they submit assignments and quizzes.
Several years ago I reorganized the class because I didn't like lecturing and assigning readings and then grading tests where the students couldn't show their comprehension. I reorganized the class to include a lot more group discussion during class. I now assign "worksheets" which are essentially outlines of the chapter to accompany the readings. The idea is for their class preparation readings to be more active and involved. During class I sometimes lecture but they often are required to discuss a question from the reading and present their answers in front of the class. In general, I think this approach has led to more active learning, more engaged students and more interesting classes.
I think this quarter is an anomaly. I think this quarter the class is just a quiet bunch and their learning and comprehension, as a group, is probably comparable to previous quarters. But not having regular feedback (in the form of reactions from students, conversations, questions, etc) has been very disorienting and somewhat disturbing to my approach.