The IDEA Blog



Read the thoughts and impressions on a variety of topics written by IDEA staff as well as occasional guest bloggers.

Seeing the Whole Picture
February 27, 2018

David Pollock, Ph.D.
Faculty Development Specialist

When you look at a small section of some paintings up close, especially abstract or impressionist-type works, you might not think you see anything particularly skillful, nor even artful. I’ve often had the thought when looking at a painting up close that, “well, I could do that.”

Consider this close-up section of a painting. 

In fact, I probably could put paint strokes on a canvas in a similar way but doing it does not create a masterpiece. It’s how this fits with other pieces to create a whole that creates something masterful. 

Take a look...

It is one of Monet’s most celebrated paintings. The strokes, colors, textures, and transparencies all combine to create a whole that is beautiful, creates a feeling, and maybe even tells a story. Small, sometimes simple strokes, become something masterful when formed with skill and artfully combined with other strokes to create a complete composition. 

It is like designing and teaching a course. Small assignments or in-class activities can sometimes seem simplistic and somewhat pointless--until they are understood in the larger scheme of the course. Students often resist and complain about those requirements when they do not appreciate how they fit in the larger purpose and totality of a course. Like someone seeing just a small section of a Monet, they may be highly unimpressed. Instructors need to help students understand the purpose of learning activities; how they build on each other; why this particular knowledge or skill is important and contributes to an important skill in their discipline; or how this relatively mundane information being learned now will blossom into something really interesting later on.    

For instance, learning some basic statistical techniques, which might be uninteresting to those who do not care for math, will later become tools for discovering and exploring all kinds of interesting things in a sociology course. But if students do not understand that connection, it can steal away their motivation for learning. In this example, rather than starting with basic statistics, the instructor can start with some interesting questions or issues, show students some data, and ask, “what do we want to know about this? And, how can we figure it out?” Then they are primed for learning the statistics that will give them answers to questions that interest them. Something as simple as pointing to the outcomes in the syllabus and how the activity at hand fits can help students see that bigger picture as well. In many courses there are opportunities for helping students see how sometimes small or tedious tasks will become something useful, even beautiful, later on when combined with other knowledge or skill.  

But there is a flip side to this analogy. Be sure that all those learning activities you require of students really are part of the bigger picture of the course--moving students to a place where they will have a robust understanding of the larger themes and needed skills in a course and not a belief that they were added just because a unit or week in a course needed to be padded with some activities. Students get tired very quickly of activities that do not serve the larger purpose of the outcomes of a course. If you only see Monet’s paintings in one-inch squares, you might think he wasn’t much of an artist. If students experience a lot of disjointed requirements for which they do not see a purpose, they are not going to think much of the course.   

The IDEA Teaching Methods: Made it clear how each topic fits into the course and Demonstrated the importance and significance of the subject matter, provide more on the reasoning for and methods of helping students understand the whole picture.   

Claude Monet, Study of a Figure Outdoors: Woman with a Parasol, facing left, via Wikimedia Commons

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