Notes for teachers on talking about and assessing artwork

Talking about Art

Visual Thinking Strategies  is a very effective way for students to understand an artwork based on a teacher-guided discussion using student observation. It is usually used to help students understand professionally produced artwork that would be seen in a museum or gallery.   This method can also be used to understand scientific illustrations or student work. The summary below is taken from this website:

Talking about art is a learned skill.  Because it differs from the “right” and “wrong” answers usually associated with many STEM subjects, practice is necessary to get the hang of it (for both the teacher and the students).  It’s worthwhile because it can become a valuable tool in STEM learning as well as art, encouraging close observation, confidence, and creativity.

How Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) Work:
VTS is very simple: You, the teacher, act as facilitator and ask students a set of questions while looking at images. After each student’s response, you paraphrase what the student said. This lets students know that you understand them and helps ensure that everyone in the group has heard the comments. Repeating what students say also helps them realize that their contributions to discussions are valid.

The VTS focus on looking and describing constitutes the first step toward building an understanding and appreciation of the visual arts.

Questions to Ask during VTS:

  1. What’s going on in this picture?
  2. What do you see that makes you say that?
  3. What more can you find?


  1. Show students the image. Always give students a moment to look in silence before you ask them anything and before they are allowed to speak. Stand near the actual artwork, or projected image, and study it along with your students. Do not read the title of the image to your students at this time. Let them make their own discoveries at this stage. (In the museum, cover the wall label to hide the title.)
  2. When ready ask, “What’s going on in this picture?” while pointing to the image. Ask your students to raise their hands so that they do not all speak at once.
  3. As each student responds, point to the areas in the picture the student mentions and paraphrase what is said: “What I hear you saying is…” or see below.
    1. Example:
      Susan (student): There’s a canyon and some houses.
      You (while pointing): Susan says she sees a canyon and some buildings that look like houses.
  4. Confirm that what you paraphrase is what the student means by watching facial expressions and body language. If you are unsure of what a student means, ask the student, “Do you mean…?”
  5. If a student makes an interpretive remark ask, “What do you see that makes you say that?”
    1. Example:
      Paul (student): The house is a happy place. (interpretive remark)
      You: What do you see that makes you say that?
      Paul: It reminds me of my grandparents’ house where I used to spend my summers. I had a lot of fun there.
      You: Paul sees a house in the picture, which reminds him of a place that holds happy memories.
  6. To elicit responses from as many students as possible ask, “What more can you find?”
  7. Let the discussion continue for about fifteen minutes or until your students seem to have run out of things to say. Then let them know that they did a good job looking at the image.

Asking the questions AND acknowledging each answer by pointing and paraphrasing are the most important things you do in this method.
As students become familiar with looking at and talking about art, they will respond to the same questions with increasingly sophisticated observations and interpretations.

VTS emphasizes a thinking process based on the viewers’ knowledge and interests. The strategy does not try to provide any more information than what the viewer  observes.

Teaching Tips:

  • Don’t be surprised if you receive a variety of responses that do not seem logical to you. Beginner viewers see things idiosyncratically. Moreover, it is the nature of art to be somewhat open-ended. Students appreciate the fact that different interpretations are possible.
  • Class discussions often develop a consensus about the meaning of a picture, which is usually quite accurate. Silly responses are eventually discarded as students are asked to ground their answers in what they see. Wildly off-base responses also fall by the wayside as students begin to figure out what makes sense.  So the teacher does not have to force this to happen by passing judgment on a student response.
  • Create a comfortable setting for discussion. The questions are non-confrontational; they do not imply that students should know something or demand that they respond in any particular way. You may find this same questioning strategy useful with other art objects and other subject areas.
  • Stick to the three basic questions, avoid asking leading questions. At this stage it is important to let the students make their own discoveries.
  • Point to the details your students mention, or ask them to do so if you do not see what they see. Let them get up from their seats to do this.
  • Encourage all students to speak and allow them to finish their thoughts completely. You may have to encourage the quieter students. Much of the learning at this stage comes through the process of verbal expression. Speaking enables growth; the silent viewer may not grow commensurate with others.
  • Let all students speak as much as they want to, even if they repeat what others have said, ramble a bit, or miss the point. This will stop after a few lessons. Also, make sure that each student feels that you value his/her contribution to the discussion, regardless of the originality, complexity, or accuracy of the remark.
  • Don’t be surprised if there are answers with which you disagree. As long as students explain themselves in terms of what they see, it is better to let a “wrong” answer stand than to undermine students’ confidence by speaking out. Resist the temptation to make corrections. Students are learning critical thinking skills in these lessons, not right answers. The method itself often leads to self-correction while students maintain some control of their learning.
  • A summation or review is seldom essential. The experience itself is what is important. Generally, the lack of closure ensures that students will continue to seek out new insights from the images. If you feel that some closure is necessary, ask the students what they might like to remember and share with their families.
  • All questions included are general. They are based on the kinds of questions, concerns, interests, and skills, which emerge in the initial stages of a beginner’s viewing history. The questions are designed to allow students to understand that the answers are within him or her. General questions help learners sort out and express what they already know. This questioning strategy is essential for developing sound reasoning, good judgment, and critical and creative thinking.

Evaluating and Assessing Student Artwork

Gallery Walk
This is a brief way to allow students to share their art work.  Art is placed on each student’s desk and students make a single file line and wind there way around the desks in the room.  They quietly look at the art, they might quietly comment to their neighbor about something they found interesting in the artwork. At the end of the walk, students can share constructive comments about another student’s art work.  It is helpful to start with the phrase “I like the way that….

  • “…Courtney carefully combined the different magazine elements to create the creature. It looks like one animal!”
  • “…Joshua used ideas from the Exquisite Corpse to come up with his final dragon offspring. “

Two Stars and a Wish
This is a method that asks students to talk about and critique other students’ work. It can start with a Gallery Walk. Students can take notes on a small paper, maybe given the task to write comments about at least 5 student artworks.

“Two Stars” — would be two positive comments students make about another’s work. Students should use vocabulary connected to the lesson i.e. “ I like the way that Camila drew the scaly texture on the dragon.”  Help the students say things that are specific and therefore useful.  For instance, if a student says, “That dragon is cool,” encourage them to name a detail that makes it cool to help us shed light on what specifically about the dragon engendered their response.

“A Wish” – Is a constructive comment a student makes that would help the student artist improve their project, i.e.  “I wish Daniel had taken more time to carefully draw the texture.”

NOTE: Student comments should never be allowed to be unconstructive. i.e. “George’s piece looks really bad”

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