Help me overcome my terror of my art history graduate school comprehensive exam.
July 10, 2009 12:56 PM   Subscribe

Help me overcome my terror of my graduate school comprehensive exam.

I'm in a graduate program in art history and I have to take my comprehensive exam this fall. It involves memorizing the artist, title, date, period, and two points of significance for 500 works of art, and I have about seven weeks to prepare.

My problem is twofold: first, a good number of the works on the list of images to study are outside my field and I've found them incredibly difficult to memorize––I have little context for them and due to the number of them, don't really have enough time to teach myself said context. I am also very poor at memorization and so getting through the works outside my field has been as difficult as memorizing random strings of numbers for me. There are so many works that making flashcards is really time consuming and takes up time I should be using to memorize information. I've also been having difficulty using things like mnemonic devices––the dates of works, for instance, are random enough that I can't come up with anything that works. So, I'm looking for any sort of advice that might be available for memorizing very large amounts of unfamiliar, contextless information.

I also already took this exam once and failed it, which has really psyched me out. I am completely overwhelmed by the test and the task of preparing for it. I've tried creating a schedule for myself, but end up getting stressed out, not following said schedule, and feeling terrible about myself. I'm not certain how to manage my time most effectively to get through this, but I know it's a skill I really need to get down for grad school. Any suggestions for this, far more neurotic aspect of the test would be appreciated as well.

Thanks in advance!
posted by lxs to Education (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It's a bit of a mnemonic trick, but if you sort them (or big chunks of them) by date, can you contruct a narrative to go along with them, however silly it might turn out? I've seen a lot of memorization techniques use something along this line, or the "speech given as you walk through an imaginary house" tactic.
posted by jquinby at 1:08 PM on July 10, 2009

Is there anyone you can study with? Someone to split up the chore of making flashcards and mnemonics?

I'm horrible and memorization and really the only two things that help are flashcards and silly stories that I can associate with an image. And both of these things are greatly benefited by forming a study group.
posted by muddgirl at 1:14 PM on July 10, 2009

Making the flashcards themselves is what makes you remember them.

For an undergrad class, I did short sketches of the pictures. I have taken and passed comps and a bar exam, but not in art history. Just grind it out. Works every time.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:15 PM on July 10, 2009

Also, once you have the flashcards you need to start grouping them in as many different ways as possible. Instead of memorizing each card's info individually, sort them by period and get a feel for which pieces of art belong to which period, then sort by date and do the same. Write lists of artists in each period and painting titles in each period, or try to list paintings in order of date during a certain decade. Then, if you can look at a painting and remember the title or artist, it'll be associated with a period and date.

Basically memorization is all about creating associations between seemingly-disparate facts. Exercise those neurons in as many different ways as possible.
posted by muddgirl at 1:18 PM on July 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seven weeks is a long time. You can do it. Make sure to get plenty of sleep during the whole time period to make things stick.

Try this free software:

You can cut and paste in images.

You'll still need to organize the information in a coherent and personal way, but I suspect twenty minutes a day with this will help you a lot. You could also pay someone to add the flashcards into Anki for you, so all you have to do is think deep thoughts and drill the flashcards.
posted by zeek321 at 1:25 PM on July 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

As for time management, I find that flashcards work best when they're split up into groups and then gradually re-integrated. This can be integrated with the idea to separate them by period or by decade. Then start mixing up the groups into larger and larger stacks (but don't try to do all 500 at once!) Over seven weeks I'd aim at learning 100 new cards a week, and spending the last two weeks reviewing and working with integrated stacks; recognizing that as you learn more cards it'll be difficult to both retain memories of the older ones and learn newer ones, so the schedule will slip somewhat.
posted by muddgirl at 1:28 PM on July 10, 2009

Making the flashcards themselves is what makes you remember them.

Seconding this. When I took my qualifying exams (in physics), we were allowed to bring in an 8.5" x 11" handwritten "formula sheet" with whatever information we liked on it. Looking up all the formulas and writing them out in my own hand helped cement the information in my mind. In the end, the act of preparing the formula sheet before the exam probably helped me more than actually being able to consult the sheet during said exam.

My suggestion: make 25 flash cards a day over a period of three weeks. (Even if it takes you 10 minutes to make a card, this is only about 4 hours per day.) You'll have a month left after that, and you'll be surprised at how much of the information has seeped into your brain over that time.
posted by Johnny Assay at 1:30 PM on July 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Going along with Johnny Assay's suggestion of cards over time. Every day in those three weeks, quickly review the cards you've made previously. Like real quickly. Just the constant exposure will help.
posted by Precision at 1:37 PM on July 10, 2009

Nthing all of Johnny Assay's recommendations. Making the flashcards is memorizing the information, and it'll take you the same amount of time.
posted by anderjen at 1:43 PM on July 10, 2009

Definitely make the flashcards. They say that the best way to learn it through visual memory, auditory memory, and written memory. Making flash cards help with the first and third. Saying them out loud to yourself helps with the second.

I like the idea of grouping things as many ways as possible. You also want to reverse the flash cards. Look at the title of a painting and then sketch out what it looks like (roughly). Buying a small whiteboard would be helpful for this. Make sure you are always speaking to yourself out loud as you do this: say the date and the period as you sketch the work. Be able to hear or read a title and visual the piece in your mind.

I also find going through each flash card once or twice right before bed helps cement things in my mind, as I often dream of them.

Finally, for me personally making a study schedule doesn't work, per se. What I find easier is to say, "I am going to study for 3 hours today" and do that. Stop when you're done. As it approaches the 1-2 weeks away mark, you will know where your strengths and weaknesses are and can then schedule accordingly.
posted by sickinthehead at 1:54 PM on July 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Throw your images into powerpoint (or similar) and save them to your phone, with accompanying music. All rennaissance artists work scroll through to say, Greensleeves, or something. Now you have a couple of cues - start singing Greensleeves, and a number of the artists should bring them selves to mind. Create posters or flip books and stick them in your toilet. Any travel when you are not driving you should be going through these again. Find someone else to tell about these artists and images, in fact, I think you could do a bunch of interesting FPPs with your background.

Split the data up by year, and make a poem. In 1888, Monet's windswept tree was great, the White Slave sat alone and ... etc blah blah blah.

I think you could even enlist askme to work on a nmemonic like that, if you produced a reference of the material that we could work from.
posted by b33j at 2:03 PM on July 10, 2009

I recently read this blog post about mnemosyne which seems like it would work really well for this problem.
posted by inkyz at 2:11 PM on July 10, 2009

I know this seems weird, but when I have to learn the dates of paintings for art history, I look for shapes in the paintings that look like the numbers in the dates. So the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, for instance, was painted in 1434--you can form a "4" between the man's hand, the bottom of his jacket, and his foot, you can find a "3" in the dog's hairs, and you can find another "4" in the folds of her skirt. Focus on those shapes each time and you'll see them every time you look at the piece and remember what date it was painted.

It helps fix the date in my visual memory, which is the easiest way for me to retain it.
posted by EmilyFlew at 2:54 PM on July 10, 2009

I took this same exam as a grad student a few years ago in Art History. Instead of traditional flashcards, I made 2 power point presentations with one slide of the image followed by the information that i needed to know about it (I only made 2 because a power point with 1,000 slides takes a long time to load). Making the power point was a bit time consuming, but no too bad since i just copied and pasted available images from online. It also helped me to memorize.
I studied over the course of about 6 weeks and did really well. I only missed 2 or so I think.

Also, not sure if you have the exact works ahead of time, or you are just responsible for the "Canon of art history" type of thing, but I flipped through Gardner's survey text and found it corresponded well to the actual exam.
posted by mike_bling at 2:57 PM on July 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Everyone here is right.

Seven weeks is a long time. You can do this. All you need to do is look at it as a series of smaller tasks you do each day-- divide the project into smaller chunks. Whether its flashcards or some other form, memorize a few a day.

Then add the same set number every day after that. Aim for a number not too large and not too small. The number just right for you (I think, internet stranger is 12 a day). Though I am no math genius (go lord), I punched 12 cards a day into a calculator. After 6 weeks you will have learned all 500. That gives you a 7 day cushion for unexpected emergencies and days you have to take off. But most of all that 7 day cushion is for reviewing. Surely you can memorize 12 a day each day?? Seriously, you can do it!

This I think is a variation of what muddgirl said. Apologies if others have said it. the key is to take it day by day.

I did something like this when I studied for the first level qualifying exam in Japan, and then my comps in Japan for folklore terms. The approach above worked really well for me.

I wish you all the luck in the world. The last weeks before comps are hell on earth.
Just remember you have a LONG time and to attack the project day by day.
posted by vincele at 8:36 PM on July 10, 2009

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