Erickson, M. (1995). Second and Sixth Grade Students’ Art Historical Interpretation Abilities: A One-Year Study. Studies in Art Education, 37(1), 19-28.


The researcher used a case study model and multiple assessments over the period of one year to determine the impact of art history instruction on the art historical interpretation abilities of elementary school students. Art historical interpretation is identified as the students’ ability to link artworks to historical artist (the artist who produced the work), historical viewer (individuals who viewed the artwork when it was first produced), and historical culture (the culture within which the artwork was produced) (Erickson, pp. 20). Students completed the same assessment measuring art historical interpretation four times throughout the year, each time using a different artwork selected by the student and correlated with art historical themes the student had just learned. The researcher hypothesized that elementary students art historical interpretation skills increase over time with sustained participation in art history coursework; that sixth grade students are able to refer to historical evidence more consistently than second grade students; and that elementary students are able to refer most consistently to historical artist, then historical viewer, and least consistently to historical culture. The research confirms all three hypotheses to varying degrees.

Key Findings:

Students increased their ability to refer to the historical artist in the third and fourth assessments when compared to the first and second assessments. However, there was no significant difference between early and later assessments in regards to students’ abilities to refer to the historical viewer or historical culture. These findings partially confirm the researcher’s first hypothesis, that students’ historical interpretation skills increase over time with continued involvement in art historical learning.

Similarly, the researcher found that sixth grade students were able to refer to historical evidence more consistently than second grade students. Sixth grade students scored higher on historical artist, historical viewer, and historical culture responses than did their second grade counterparts.

Second grade students were able to refer to historical artist more consistently than to historical viewer or historical culture. This finding confirms the researcher’s hypothesis that elementary students are more able to refer to some types of historical evidence than others.

Significance of the Findings:

This study shows that elementary students have the capacity to begin studying art history and are able to understand how artworks reflect broad cultural ideas. Various peaks in art historical reference scores throughout the year suggest that students identify and engage with specific areas of art history while other themes are less exciting. Because some scores increased over the period of a year, the study suggests that art historical knowledge and skills are developed and refined over time, and that a once-and-done program is not adequate for developing students’ historical reference skills.


The researcher, in cooperation with the art teacher, selected a class of 31 second grade students and a class of 24 sixth grade students (in this case identified as elementary school students based on cultural diversity, student age range, and classroom teacher cooperation. These classes of students engaged in a year-long art program that met weekly and explored ten cross-cultural themes. One-third of the course time was spent on art history content instruction and the remainder spent on art making activities relevant to the content.

Four times during the year, students chose a reproduction that was associated with a course theme for in-depth study. For each of these reproductions, students answered the same three open-ended items, which served as the assessment instrument for the study, that probed into their views about the historical artist, viewer, and culture of the piece. The researcher and a trained research assistant scored each of the responses on a 4-level scale (zero to three, with zero representing no evidence and three representing clear historical reference) based on how much evidence students used to answer each item. The researchers calculated the number of references each student made per category and then totaled these scores by grade level and used statistical analysis to draw conclusions of variance (the factor of difference).

Limitations of the Research:

The relationship between individual themes and students’ art historical interpretation abilities was not clear, because the assessments were administered with groups of two or three themes and students chose which of several reproductions they preferred to study. The study does not compare initial learning to sustained learning in a longitudinal model, and therefore it is hard to recognize the long-term benefits of art historical learning for students. The study is further limited in its exclusion of a control group by which to compare results and isolate art history education as an independent variable.

Questions to Guide New Research:

How does art historical content affect students’ ability to connect artworks with the culture in which they were produced? What are the art historical interpretation abilities of high school and college students? How do students’ cultural backgrounds affect their art historical interpretation abilities? How do art historical interpretation skills transfer to other subject areas such as literature and world history? Additionally, how do art historical interpretation skills grow over time, and what affect do they have on cultural understanding in informal settings (outside the classroom, with groups of various backgrounds and races)?