How to Study for an Art History Exam and Get an A


The Art History Myth

So many students register for an art history class with an inaccurate idea of what the subject entails. They believe it's a class for looking at pretty pictures all day and they'll be able to skate right through it. However, this is not the case. Art history covers far more than looking at pictures, and requires exceptional study skills if the goal is an "A" letter grade. In my experience as an art history student, I noticed three distinct types of students in my classes:

  • The art history major who needs and wants to study the subject.
  • The art major who is required to take a certain amount of art history courses.
  • And, the other random majors who needed an elective and thought that art history would be fun and easy.

Whatever their area of study, many students are completely shocked when they receive those first test scores. Those C's, D's, and F's are always a quick slap in the face to those students who callously believed art history to be a fluff class. Sadly, even many students majoring in the subject struggle for high marks on exams because while they may be passionate about the subject matter, they just don't know how to properly prepare for an exam.

Even by the time I was taking the upper level courses, many of my fellow students still hadn't adopted good studying practices. Semester after semester they approached studying for exams in the same way; scrambling to memorize the content last minute while guzzling venti latté's at Starbucks in the student union until two or three o'clock in the morning.

If you are currently taking an art history class, or planning on it, you'll probably hear students and even instructor's say, "Memorization is the key." This is true to a point. You will need to memorize titles, artist names, and dates, at least, but memorization tends to be temporary knowledge. Sitting down with a stack of flash cards and memorizing what's on them may be the quicker way to pass the test, but it is an excruciatingly BORING way to study, and you'll forget everything by the next day.

My methods of studying take a great deal more time. These are not methods for people who want to know how to pass an art history exam without putting in any work. My study strategies are meant for the student - whether an art history major or a student of another field - who wants to get an A and doesn't mind working diligently to get there.

My methods are also tried and true. I graduated magna cum laude with a degree in art history, and with the highest GPA of all the art history majors graduating with me. Those friends of mine who pulled the late nighters with the flash cards did not graduate with honors.

So, my promise is, if you're willing to work for the grade, I will give you the strategy that will get it for you. In the long run, your life will actually be easier come test time because you won't need to cram for the test; you'll already know the answers.

Art History Trivia

In his Last Judgement fresco for the Sistine Chapel, located behind the altar, Michelangelo represented his self portrait as what?

  • An angel
  • A demon
  • Flayed skin
  • A serpent
See results without voting

Some General Study Tips

To begin, I'd like to introduce some general good study habits:

  1. Don't wait until right before the test to study.

    I've already alluded to this step, and while it seems most obvious, it is surprising how many people ignore this simple precept. Time and time again students attend class and think their job is done for the day.


    There is a reason instructors create a syllabus outlining the schedule for the duration of the class. Your class syllabi is not something you should toss into the garbage on your way out of the classroom on the first day. No, that document needs to become the basis of outlining your study schedule for the semester.

    Staying on top of your syllabus enables you to anticipate the upcoming topics. The best practice is to prepare for the lecture by reading the corresponding literature before the topic is covered. This way, the lecture actually reinforces information you've already gained and aids in better retention.

  2. Take notes in class

    Another obvious tip ignored by too many students. Taking notes in lecture classes is optimal for keeping one's mind engaged. Even if the instructor is covering details seemingly irrelevant to the matter at hand, take notes. It keeps you focused, and the act of writing also helps with retaining knowledge.

    Yes, I'm not only recommending notes, but I'm suggesting you actually write them as opposed to typing them. For those of us brought up with computers, our typing skills are generally enough adept for us to type and transcribe what a professor is saying without actually giving it any attention. But, that also makes it all too easy to type what you hear without actually listening.

    And of course, there are the many distractions computers bring with them: Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, email, Amazon, etc. While you're busy checking your status on Facebook, your instructor likely just gave the class a crucial bit of information meaning the difference between getting an A on the essay portion of the test and not getting credit at all. If, for whatever reason, you still choose to use a computer in class, don't have Facebook or any of the other distracting sites open in another tab. Those pesky notifications telling you something new has occurred are far too tempting to ignore, and before you know it you're checking your updates more than taking notes.

  3. Study in a place NOT comfortable.

    The optimal location for studying, especially if you need to devote a good chunk of time, is somewhere with no other activity options. The library, a quiet bookstore café, or a coffee house make for great places to study. The environment is generally subdued, quiet, and they offer something to do while taking a study break without causing distraction.

    Most people have difficulty studying at home because there are too many other things to do. My apartment was never cleaner than when my college roommate had an assignment due or a test coming up. Studying at home makes it too easy to distract yourself with other important things that need to be done.

  4. Listen to instrumental music while studying.

    Most of us have heard listening to classical music is best for while studying, but what if you don't like classical music? I too highly recommend listening to something to block out the noise of your surroundings, and I find that music helps focus the mind and before you know it you've spent hours studying without even realizing time has passed. But, we don't all dig Beethoven and Mozart as background noise (personally I do, but I can understand this isn't for everyone's taste). If you're not in to classical tunes, try listening to film scores. If you enjoy an edgier sound to your music, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Ynwei Malmsteen, Ethan Brosch, and many other guitarists have solo albums of purely instrumental compositions. Prefer a mix? Try Apocalyptica, 2 Cellos, or David Garrett.

  5. Study in cycles of twenty to forty minutes with five to ten minute break-in between.

    A four hour study session with no breaks is a tedious and frankly daunting task. If this is your idea of what studying entails, it's no wonder you avoid it. Dividing the task into smaller, more manageable chunks with five to ten minute breaks to look forward to will make that overall four hour period a much more enjoyable experience.

    When you take a break, do something non-task oriented. This is when you check Facebook or the other social media sites, maybe you get a snack or another cup of coffee, play candy crush on your iPhone, etc. But, don't let your breaks distract you from returning to the task at hand. When break time is over, close out of whatever game or social media you're using and get back to business.

  6. Don't always study alone.

    Partnering with another member of your class has many advantages. First, if you missed a class or dozed off during a lecture, you can compare notes and make sure you're caught up. Second, the active engagement of quizzing each other is less monotonous than reading chapter upon chapter in the text or using flash cards. Finally, if you get along with your study partner(s) a lot of times these sessions feel more like hanging out, thus making studying far more entertaining.

To sum it up, these aren't all technically study tips, but more of an academic modus operandi. It's the same reasoning behind the idea that cleaning as you cook results in less kitchen mess after the meal. Work a little bit conscientiously throughout the semester and you'll be sleeping like a baby the night before the exam while the rest of your class burns themselves out and nearly overdoses on caffeine.


Art History Study Tips

Now, for the art history specific tips.

  1. Flash cards.

    If I've made it seem so far as if flash cards are dull and monotonous, I'm sorry. I'm sorry because, as dull and monotonous as they can be, they're still the number one best study tool for art history. Remember, I did say that memorization does play a certain role up to a point, and flash cards are optimal for drilling the pertinent information - name, date, title, style, location, etc. - into your head.

    There is, of course, the old school way of making flash cards. Note cards with a printout of the image on one side and the corresponding details on the reverse side. Or, you can use Keynote, or Power Point if you have a Windows machine, to create a digital version of flash cards. On one slide you show the image, most of which can be found on Google Images or ARTstor, and enter the details on the next slide.

    There are also different variations of online flash card programs. I personally never had any success with these and found them to be more of a waste of time than helpful, but if this is more to your liking you can find plenty by searching for "flash card maker" on Google.

  2. Create a master list.

    It may be wiser to create this before you create the flash cards, but either way you'll need this to study. For my own studying purposes, I always used Numbers (Excel for the Microsoft users out there), and I made lists for Date, Title, Artist, Style, Medium, Location, and Period. Then I would enter each artwork covered in the session in date order from oldest to newest.

    However, there are many ways to organize your lists. Depending on how you're being tested, or what information you're being tested on, you may want to group by artist, by period, by style, by medium, or by location. Creating this list is really up to your preferred mode of arranging information.

    As you assemble your list, leave room for notes. You will use this list in conjunction with your flash cards or Keynote/Power Point file to annotate relative information to the images you are reviewing.

  3. Expand your learning outside the classroom.

    Don't stick to reviewing only your class notes. Look up biographical information about each artist on the exam. It is likely more knowledge about the artist will help you better understand their choices of subject matter, medium, and/or style. Contextual information will without a doubt help cement the where and the when. For instance, knowing Leonardo Da Vinci, an Italian by birth, finished his career and life in France, may help you remember that La Joconde is in the Louvre, not Italy.

    There is plenty of contextual information available for many of the famous works in the history of art. Primary sources are best, but there are numerous secondary sources out there. So before the test, check out supplementary materials from the library or even use Google to find online articles about the material you're studying.

    The trick to truly being able to recognize and remember facts about artworks is to actually know the information. Learning as much as you can about the artist, the time period, the individual works themselves will only help you retain the information more permanently. Follow these tips, and you'll walk in to every test and confidently pass it with ease.

An Example of A Master List of Works to be Studied

The Night Café
Vincent Van Gogh
Oil on Canvas
Landscape with Wheat Sheaves and Rising Moon
Vincent Van Gogh
Oil on Canvas
Starry Night
Vincent Van Gogh
Oil on Canvas
Stack of supplementary art history reading materials.
Stack of supplementary art history reading materials. | Source

Some Helpful Reference Materials

Some very helpful materials to supplement learning outside the classroom are:

  • For art theory:
    • Meaning in the Visual Arts by Erwin Panofsky, ISBN 978-0226645513
    • The Methodologies of Art: An Introduction by Laurie Schneider Adams, ISBN 978-0-8133-4450-8
    • Ways of Seeing by John Berger, ISBN 0-14-013515-4
  • For Classical (and Renaissance) art: Who's Who in Classical Mythology by Adrian Room, ISBN 0-517-22256-6
  • For Modern art: Theories of Modern Art by Herschel B. Chipp, ISBN 978-0-520-05256-7
  • For symbolism in Western Christian art: Signs & Symbols in Christian Art by George Ferguson, ISBN 978-0-19-501432-7
  • Other:
    • The Cambridge Introduction to Art: Looking At Pictures by Susan Woodford, ISBN 0-521-28647-6
    • The Art of Writing about Art by Suzanne Hudson and Nancy Noonan-Morrissey, ISBN 0-15-506154-2
    • Art History's History by Vernon Hyde Minor, ISBN 0-13-085133-7

Don't forget to check out biographies of artists and exhibition catalogues for even more in depth supplementary materials.

Just for good measure, this is my diploma showing I graduated with honors and a degree in art history.
Just for good measure, this is my diploma showing I graduated with honors and a degree in art history. | Source

In Conclusion

Art history is a fascinating subject, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has the slightest interest in art. However, it is not an easy class, and even those of us who major in the field struggle to make the grade. I wish I'd had someone to outline for me the best way to approach studying and learning the material. Instead, I had to learn the hard way. For those of you who find yourself grappling with the material, I hope this article helps you get the grades you deserve.

Comments 3 comments

weirdalex 21 months ago

Thanks so much for posting this! I think this is going to help me a lot in my class. I really like the idea of creating a table for artists and information about them. I love creating art, and so I thought I'd love art history, but I found the class (which I'm currently taking for a GE requirement) to be a lot harder and less interesting than I thought. I'm not into history, but I love drawing and such. I think this is going to help a lot, and I think I'll have a lot more fun studying the subject now. :)

Alana 20 months ago

very helpful


RJ Barnes profile image

RJ Barnes 20 months ago from Florida Author

@ weirdalex

I hope this does help you get through your class. It was many classes and a lot of hours studying before I figured out the best way to approach the information. Most importantly though, I hope what you learn in your class inspires you to keep drawing and creating art!

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