Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]

Self directed learning in the visual arts

Kerry Williams
School of Art
Curtin University of Technology
    There are well established links between self directed learning and visual art practice. This paper outlines a project aimed at further supporting self directed learning in visual art in a tertiary context.

    The nature of art is often solitary and individual, as a result self directed learning has provided a useful and innovative model for learning within the discipline. The model is also relevant to students who are studying within the group dynamics of a studio environment, as self directed learning closely fits the way artists operate in their independent careers.

    Students enrolled in the School of Art, Curtin University of Technology, engage in self directed learning in their Third Year and Honours years of study. These students work within the framework of a negotiated study proposal and with the help of their supervisor the proposal is formalised into a contract. However, although students are familiar with the self directed model they have indicated the need to be more empowered in the process. In consultation with students and staff of the School of Art a Self directed Learning Workbook has been developed to facilitate that empowerment.

    The Workbook is currently being piloted to see if students using the Self directed Learning Workbook show a greater understanding of the concepts related to self directed learning, approach self directed learning with greater confidence, manage their time better, work across disciplines more easily, engage in self monitoring and self evaluation and produce exciting, challenging art portfolios.

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History of self directed learning in an art context

Self directed learning has a long tradition in the arts. The nature of art is often solitary and individual, and as a result artists tend naturally toward self directed methods of learning. Art practice itself provides a useful and most innovative model for self directed learning. Self directed learning is also appropriate for students who are working within the group dynamics of a studio environment as it closely fits the way artists operate in their independent careers.

In Medieval times the strict doctrines carried out in monasteries dictated that art was copied from book to book by monks illuminating the Scriptures. There was little room for innovation until the Renaissance artists revived the ideas of classical Greek and Roman thinking, providing an environment in which new ideas embraced history and the aims of art paralleled the innovations of science.

During the early Renaissance art teaching was guided by the apprenticeship system with masters passing on their individual and accumulated skills and knowledge. Such wisdom was acquired over a life time and artists often took their knowledge to the grave. By the late Renaissance Leonardo da Vinci left evidence of his strategic and independent learning methods in the form of his notebooks, treatises and codices. This evidence has enabled his life's work to be assessed on two distinct but equally important fronts: his actual finished works in the form of painting, drawing, sculpture and technical innovation; and his written ideas and precepts about art. The culmination of these practices has made Da Vinci unforgettable in the chronicles of art. His notebooks and drawings are examples of a study of learning how to learn. Today, fostering a knowledge of learning processes has become as important as content.

At the beginning of the twentieth century many artists wrote individual manifestos which articulated their own philosophies. What prompted Kandinsky to write on his ideas is encapsulated in the statement: 'I want people to see finally what lies behind my painting'.[1] Perhaps this urge was driven by an overriding desire to identify his personal philosophy and maintain an autonomy over the description of his work, countering the interpretations of historians and critics.

Kandinsky understood that every period of culture produced its own art.[2] The last thirty years has involved a complex array of practices that now allows for a diversity of approaches to exist under the umbrella of art. Artists, more than ever need to have confidence in their own philosophies and techniques consolidating their ideas and their art practice. If art can be said to be the visual expression of fields of knowledge and experience, then students who wish to establish a career in the arts need to be assisted by new and relevant modes of instruction involving autonomous and independent learning. These method of learning strengthen student's abilities to practice outside of the nurturing environment of the art school.

Considering how contemporary artists locate their work is useful in helping students to understand what is involved in being self directed. Many contemporary artists have evolved practices that are highly flexible and individual, engaging cross and inter-disciplinary approaches. Their artwork may operate on a number of levels and draw upon an array of expertise: social, cultural, physical, theoretical, historical, technical, psychological, aesthetic, poetic and concrete. Self directed learning accommodates all these differences.

Self directed learning in the School of Art

The School of Art, Curtin University of Technology offers a self directed learning program for students undertaking their final year of undergraduate study and Honours qualification. Experience shows self directed learning to be the most appropriate teaching method for the development of an advanced body of art work.

Our views confirm that of Hiemstra (1994) "that most learners prefer to take considerable responsibility for their own learning when given the opportunity".[3] Our experiences also support the findings of Zimmerman and Pauslen (1995) that self regulated students are "interested in the subject matter; well prepared; and ready with comments, questions, ideas, and insights; they are problem solvers, unafraid to fail or to admit they do not understand, driven to rectify failure and to construct understanding."[4] Self directed students also produce the most successful and resolved portfolios of art work.

Our self regulated academic model allows a high degree of flexibility in which each student's individual needs can be met. This approach allows for each student to select and develop the subject matter of interest to them, to undertake the appropriate conceptual and technical research for their topic, to develop their own timetable for achieving their goals and to engage in self evaluation.

However, although there has been a strong commitment to self directed learning in the School, each studio area has approached self direction differently. These separate approaches have resulted in a plethora of titles for self directed study, a diversity of contractual arrangements with students, differing degrees of support and uncertain expectations on the part of staff and students.

The diversity is also making it increasingly difficult for students to work across different studio areas and to approach their art work in intermedia and/or cross-disciplinary ways. It is also confusing as students are often not fully aware of the aims and objectives of the various self directed programs or aware of the full extent of their empowerment in these programs. Further, our students come from diverse backgrounds and many come from highly authoritarian and externally disciplined learning environments making it difficult for them to fully understand the concept of self directed learning.

The development of a self directed learning workbook

The development of a self directed learning workbook was assessed as the appropriate method of addressing some of these issues. A workbook was chosen in preference to other strategies because recent experience in the School of Art shows the workbook/guide format to be highly successful in engaging and informing students.

The Workbook was funded by a grant received from the Self Directed Learning Program, a 1999 Strategic Initiative Project funded by the Office of Teaching and Learning, Curtin University of Technology.

The Workbook aims to remove impediments and misconceptions about self directed learning by compiling a document which draws on best practice from the existing programs and also adds revised and new strategies. The Workbook has been designed to empower students working on the development of their major Studio art folios and to offer them an experience that closely fits the practice required in the profession once they have graduated.

The Workbook has three parts. Firstly, it addresses the definition of self directed learning in terms of associated skills and strategies including how it has been employed in the history of art and art education. Secondly, it includes protocols and procedures outlining guidelines for how self directed learning is conducted in the School of Art. Thirdly, the workbook gives guidance to students on the writing of their negotiated proposals, including case studies of past students, the establishment of time lines for achieving goals and the processes of self monitoring and self assessment. The emphasis of the workbook is on how to undertake self directed learning in the School of Art.

Evaluation of the Self Directed Learning Workbook

A series of drafts of the Workbook were presented to second and third year art students during tutorial sessions in stages. Ideas in the Workbook were workshopped and feedback from staff and students were sought. In order to evaluate the final draft of the workbook a questionnaire was devised to ascertain the students responses. One student commented:
This workbook can set students on the right path from the very beginning of the year. Even better the concept of self directed learning could be introduced in second semester second year, so that students have a sound base from which to start their third year.
The evaluation questionnaire was divided into three categories asking questions regarding:
  1. an overall response to the workbook
  2. the relevance of each section in the workbook
  3. effectiveness of information regarding assessment procedures.

All the feedback received from the students was positive

As one student articulated:
I feel that self directed learning has been in place in the Art School for quite sometime, however it has not been directly explained to students. This Workbook is what students have needed to make things clearer and the Workbook will be a huge help to incoming students in the Art School.
Students in particular highlighted the negotiated proposal and the supplementary case studies as being extremely useful. A number of students wrote that the Workbook is particularly useful for students less confident in working independently because it provides an explanation on how to change one's learning style:
The workbook will be especially helpful to those students coming straight from senior high school, or those that lack confidence and need some structure and direction.
It is too soon to tell the positive impact of the Workbook on the development of art folios. There was a 25% neutral response to questions that asked the students to analyse the impact of the Workbook on their art practice. This was understandable since the Workbook was issued to them in stages as the semester progressed. The students did not receive the complete Workbook until the end of the semester. However, students appreciated that the benefits to their art practice will be realised next year. As one student commented:
The workbook will be a useful guide next year as part of my art practice.


The research into self directed learning has been of benefit to both students and staff within the School of Art. A formalised Workbook on self directed learning was greeted with a sense of relief by many of the students. Feedback highlights the need for continued clarification and explanation of educational procedures within the School of Art. The School will extend its research in this valuable area, looking towards the more specific needs and differences of a diverse student body. Given the pressure on academic staff to achieve such a broad range of tasks and the fact that many art lecturers are practitioners with no formal background in education, the workbook offers a basis for unification amongst art disciplines and points to the importance of how students learn and the advantages of self directed learning.

Since the completion of the Workbook the School of Art has fully endorsed its value and will make the Self directed Learning Workbook a set text in the year 2000 for students enrolled in the third year of their Visual Art Degree. In addition to servicing students on campus, the workbook has applicability for other off campus courses run by the School of Art. This includes students enrolled in the Associate Degree in Esperance and offshore at the National Academy of Fine Art, Singapore. The School of Art has recently won a contract to develop units in practical art to be offered online through Open Learning Australia. The Workbook is currently being edited to make it relevant and vital for these distance students.

On the whole the acceptance by staff and students and the inclusion of the Workbook in on campus, off campus and off shore programs points to the success of the Self Directed Learning Workbook.


  1. K.C. Lindsay & P. Vergo (eds.), Kandinsky Complete Writings on Art, Vol 1&2., G.K. Hale & Co, Boston, Massachusetts, 1982, pv.

  2. Ibid, p127.

  3. R. Heimstra, 'Helping Learners Take Responsibility for Self directed Activities', New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 64, 1994, p81.

  4. B. Zimmerman & A.S. Paulsen, 'Self monitoring During Collegiate Studying: An Invaluable Tool for Academic Self Regulation', New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 63, p13.
Please cite as: Williams, K. (2000). Self directed learning in the visual arts. In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/williams.html

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