Amy Bennion headshot
Amy Bennion | Assistant Professor

Trial by Fire


Studio art courses are inherently experiential. When learning how to paint or draw it is necessary for students to act out the technical processes they learn, basically to get their hands dirty, make mistakes, and learn how to fix them. In a normal semester as their professor I’m right in there with them, covered in charcoal dust and paint. Communal learning is a huge element in advancing student progress in studio art. From fostering a healthy level of competition, learning from each others’ examples, and feeding off the energy of a group dynamic, art students thrive on working together in the painting and drawing studios. Teaching in the pandemic necessitated the hard review and restructuring of all my teaching processes in order to most closely achieve an experience akin to normal studio learning. This year has put my teaching methods through a refining process which will enhance my courses post-pandemic. Through amplifying teaching techniques, maximizing synchronous class time, and rediscovering connection through the zoom screen, I have seen my student stress levels lower, an increase in productivity and quality of work, and an overall rise in student engagement.

Preparing for Fall 2020 classes was daunting in many ways. This was my first semester at UNF and after 10 years of adjunct teaching in schools in Utah and Chicago the pandemic came with my first year of teaching as tenure-track faculty. Beyond the normal first-year thoughts of “how can I prove myself,” “will I fit into the department,” and “where’s the closest grocery store,” my main concerns were how to help the students get the most they could out of an impossible situation. How will we keep the students safe in the art studios? How will I run demonstrations and critiques remotely? And what about the thousand small learning moments that happen naturally when we’re all in the same room? Things like immediate feedback on student work, communal learning when students are working in the same space, or the spark of energy that comes from forming a bond as a group, were all potentially lost in the dull screens of zoom teaching.

I narrowed down my priorities into three categories: keeping students safe while in the art studios, strengthening Canvas organization so students could rely on a clear system of communication and content delivery, and creating as close to a normal studio art experience as possible. I decided early on that I would give my students the choice of either in-person or remote instruction. For as many safeguards the university was doing, I felt it important that my students felt in control of their own health, when so many things were out of their control. Many of my students lived with high-risk family members, or were high-risk themselves. Though it doubled my work, my students were grateful to have the choice. In the first week of classes my students split down the middle of who wanted to be remote vs in-person. I tried two models in my three classes. Two classes had A and B groups, where A was in-person and B was remote. My final class had too many people in the in-person group to be able to meet all on the same day safely, so both A and B groups had half in-person and half remote students. I provided asynchronous material on Canvas to make up for the missing instruction days.

Near the end of Fall semester I took a step back and reviewed how some of my pandemioc-teaching decisions had played out. Teaching a blended classroom of simultaneous in-person and remote students is much more difficult than it sounds. My attention was split between the zoom screen and the physical room and so gave the students less focused one-on-one attention. Splitting the classes into A and B groups was like teaching two sections of a class, my course load essentially became 6 instead of 3. And finally, the vast majority of my students were struggling with the asynchronous learning elements of my hybrid courses. With all the external distractions, and the general stress of a world experiencing so much trauma, they had much less capacity for independent learning. I needed to make some changes.

As reports of major increases in new cases and deaths rose as we moved into the holiday season, the Painting and Drawing faculty decided jointly to switch our courses to full remote instruction. Our primary concern was keeping the students, ourselves, and our families safe. Our decision also had an added benefit to teaching delivery. With all my students participating remotely, there would be no need for a hybrid/flex modality, no need for A/B groups, and most importantly for the students: no need for asynchronous participation. As we moved into Spring semester, I was able to take what worked well in the Fall and meet challenges with more targeted approaches by adapting my methods for demonstrations, individual feedback, Canvas organization, and work sessions. By refining these four areas of my teaching practice I have found it to lower student stress levels, improve learning outcomes, and increase student participation and enthusiasm for the subject.

Demonstrations: Pre-Recorded and Real-Time

A major part of any studio art course is demonstration of technical processes. For the past few years I have been pre-recording some of my painting and drawing demonstrations which I then present and discuss in class. The ability to speed up or slow down the demo video, pause and discuss or answer questions has been very useful even in a normal year. These pre-recorded demo videos became a key element of my pandemic teaching tool-kit. 

In the Fall I prepared asynchronous material–calling it “Class Prep” to my students–including these demo videos with voiced-over notes, along with photo-documented steps and written instructions. I recorded myself describing the techniques I demonstrated in the videos using a combination of zoom recording, video recording with my camera, and editing in Final Cut Pro. Giving Canvas quizzes on the asynchronous materials, the “Class Prep” I could reinforce key concepts and encourage and gauge student involvement. As I said before, independent learning was near impossible for the students during such intensely stressful times. I found the students were not absorbing the materials, and skimming or often not watching the videos, coming to class unprepared to move forward with projects. 

This Spring, by moving all my materials from asynchronous to synchronous, I increased student involvement and understanding of new techniques by a large amount. Returning to a model which had been successful in previous years, I incorporated my pre-recorded demo videos into instructional days, blending them with real-time demonstrations through zoom. 

The image on the left above shows my set-ups for pre-recording demos for drawing in charcoal on a toned ground in Figure Drawing II. The photo on the right shows an alternate recording angle demonstrating drawing in color for the same class.

I record my drawing sessions then edit my videos in Final Cut Pro to a single video at higher speed with consistent lighting and framing. I then record a voice-over lecture describing the techniques shown and post the video in a Canvas page or assignment. In the Fall this would be included in asynchronous materials. In my refined method this Spring, I mute the voice-over notes during synchronous instruction, explaining the technique real-time, pausing for questions or clarification. I keep the voiced-over notes on the video for students to reference later.

The screenshot above shows how I embed a pre-recorded demo into a Canvas page using Canvas Studio. The video has been sped up, distilling a couple of hours of painting time into 20 minutes taken out of class. The video includes voiced-over notes for students to refer back to if they missed the lecture, or as reminders while they work on their own painting.
The screenshot of a zoom class above shows me giving a real-time demo on cleaning oil painting brushes and palette to my Painting I students this Spring. Real-time demos, though still through a screen, have a different kind of energy than the pre-recorded videos, allowing students to ask me to show something in greater detail, change the angle or zoom in, or highlight an element of the technique.
The image above is from a real-time demo where I show my Painting III students how to use a clamp strap to make a cradle for a painting panel, something they can make at home without a woodshop.

This Spring semester I find that students are understanding and retaining information better when we review either the pre-recorded or the real-time demos synchronously together than they were last semester when they were responsible to watch the videos on their own. Students who were in my courses in the Fall and who are currently in my Spring courses have mentioned how much better it is to learn this way. I have also had several students thank me for providing the videos and the voiced-over notes on Canvas for their review after the initial lecture. They tell me it helps them remember what we talked about in class while they are working on their projects at home.

Individual Feedback in Short Videos

An art studio course in a normal year would involve many class sessions where students are working in the studio classroom on their projects. The art instructor moves through the room giving immediate feedback on what each student was working on, pointing to the area of their painting or drawing being discussed, or even demonstrating a technical solution on their piece. In an in-person work session I can give encouragement to those who I see are struggling to stay focused, or give individual instruction when I see someone is confused about a technique, or catch mistakes before they’re made. When we’re in the room together I can tell a student, “Go look at so-and-so’s painting, they’ve found an inventive fix to the issue that you’re experiencing.” Every day we’re working together each student has the opportunity to talk with me one-on-one about their projects.

During the pandemic, the students miss out on the kind of immediate feedback that I can offer when we’re all in the same room together. Through the Fall I tried many methods of giving individual feedback, from emails, comments on their Canvas submissions, to individual meetings during a zoom class, attempting to find the best way to deliver critiques. This Spring I have settled on a method that is working better than the rest: short feedback videos dedicated to each student on their project submissions. Students in my courses submit a “first draft” of their paintings, roughly half-way through the project. I send them back a short video discussing what they’re doing well and how to adapt their techniques to improve their work. The videos are more akin to the impromptu feedback I could give in the classroom than say, a wall of text in an email or a comment on Canvas Speedgrader. Recording in zoom I pull up their work and “Screen Share” the image where I can point with my cursor to the areas I’m discussing or show them master artists who exemplify a technique or concept I feel would benefit the student.

The image above is a still from filmed feedback for a Painting I student’s grisaille project, a monochromatic painting. By including the student’s reference image (on the left) directly next to their painting (on the right) they are better able to see areas they did well and areas they could improve. Using a red pointer cursor I can point directly to the area I am discussing, simulating a face-to-face critique.
The screenshot above of my Canvas Studio page shows the group of uploaded feedback videos for some of my Painting I students.
To share the video with my individual students I click the three dots on the video in Canvas Studio, then click “Share Media.”
In the window that pops up I click “Create Public Link.” Which will create a link I can share only with the student it is meant for.
I copy the link to share the video with my student.
I then paste the link in an email to the student.
The screenshot above is taken from another student’s feedback video. I keep these to less than 10 minutes each.

My students have responded well to these short videos. I’ve found they’re more likely to watch the videos than read an emailed critique. The videos soften the intimidation of either a written critique or a real-time critique in class. Their comprehension of how they can improve their work has gone up. One Painting III student emailed me: “The videos are super helpful because I can see exactly what you’re talking about so thanks for doing them!” Another student, this time in Painting I wrote, “this way of providing feedback is really helpful and super non-stressful.” Another Painting I student wrote, “It is lovely to actually ‘hear’ your comments! I really appreciate your taking the time to review my work and provide such helpful feedback. I am learning a lot in the class.” Many other students mentioned in class how helpful they were.

Canvas Organization: Clear Step by Step Instruction

This past year I have found that I have to clarify, streamline, and flesh-out every aspect of my teaching in order for the students to function in my courses. Where a simple and short project sheet had worked in the past with in-person teaching, now I need every step outlined with clear instruction, tips, and extensive photos to augment real-time demos. So much of our communication comes from non-verbal cues when we’re in the room together. In remote instruction, I need to utilize all forms of communication to make content delivery clear and simple for my students.

The screenshot above shows a portion of a Canvas page with instructions for my Painting I students on how to prepare their materials and surfaces for a color mixing chart project. Creating extensive instructions with photos that students can refer back to after the discussion in class increases the quality of my students’ work, lowers their stress levels, makes for fewer midnight-before-the-deadline-panic emails, and more self-reliant students. This also gives students who are too shy to ask in class an alternative way to access the information.
In these instructions, I show my Painting I students a trick for mixing a middle value tint between light and dark paint. Extensive photo documentation has been key in clarifying difficult techniques.
By including brief written instructions with the embedded pre-recorded demo videos students can better see what they need to focus on in each technique.
Here I show Painting I students how to mix colors to match their reference for a portrait painting project.

This Spring I have noticed a definite increase in the quality of my students’ projects since I have beefed up the step-by-step instructions with photos and concise written instructions to go with any project introduction. With student attention span being limited in zoom classes, and through the stress of the world events, giving highly organized instructions on Canvas has lowered their stress levels and allowed them to move forward with their projects with confidence.

Synchronous Work Days

Something that worked very well in the Fall semester that I have carried over to Spring are synchronous work days. After learning a new technique, or introducing a new project, I hold a work session in the following class. It would be easy to introduce a project, give demos and instruction on techniques, and then send students off to do the work by themselves. We’re all so tired of zoom screens, that signing off is very tempting, for both me and the students. But when I have done this in the past I find the students have a harder time completing projects, they forget what they learned about techniques in class, their stress levels are higher when working alone, they miss out on the energy from working in a group, and they are more likely to give in to distractions.

Holding zoom work sessions during class gives the students the space and dedicated time to launch into the new project with the benefit of having me on hand to answer any questions or help resolve any immediate issues. After our work sessions, they are more confident to work on the project outside of class time. They can also talk about the process with each other, replicating that communal learning that usually happens in the studio together, sharing what works for them, tips and tricks, and talking through frustrations.

The screenshot above shows my Painting I students working on their projects during a synchronous work session.
During each synchronous work session, I have students post their paintings in a dedicated Google Slides document at the beginning and end of class, showing their progress made. Each student can see other students’ work, can ask other students how they achieved what they did, and can gauge their own progress against the class overall. During class, I give them real-time feedback on their progress encouraging them with what they do well and I can more immediately catch potential issues. I then post that slideshow of work in Canvas so students can go back later to see each stage of the project.

I have had several students over both Fall and Spring semester tell me and my colleagues how helpful my synchronous work days are for their process. One student said, “It’s almost like a real studio class!” Others have mentioned how helpful it is to have a dedicated time set apart where they have to work on their class projects, they can’t be distracted by other things, and they can get a chunk of the work done. It has been a moment of near-normalcy during this teaching in the pandemic experience.

Next Steps

Teaching during the pandemic was like a fishbowl experience showing me what works well and what doesn’t even during a normal year. There are many things I will carry over to my future teaching practice. Utilizing the many different modes of communication and instruction delivery that Canvas allows, combining pre-recorded demonstration videos with real-time instruction, and giving individualized feedback videos to students are all methods I will continue to refine in the post-pandemic future. This experience has also highlighted the incredible benefit of artist-students working together as a group, through communal learning and the electric energy that comes from working in the painting studio together. Confirming this essential element of any studio program will help me refocus my efforts to better facilitate this for students in the future.

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