Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy

Table of Contents

Making the Grade (Or Not): Thoughts on Self-Design, Self-Assessment, and Self-Grading

Brian Alegant (Music Theory) and Barbara Sawhill (Hispanic Studies), Oberlin College


Like many instructors who embrace active learning and student-centered learning, our teaching has evolved tremendously over the past decade. We seek ways to help students take greater ownership of their learning. We view ourselves as interactive facilitators—as opposed to evaluative experts—and we strive to make the conversation about students’ learning rather than our teaching. We minimize lecturing in favor of small- and large-group discussion and discovery-based inquiry (see also Colletti, Schubert, and Shaffer/Hughes in this volume). We emphasize the acquisition of skills over the coverage of content. And perhaps most importantly: we ask students to grade themselves. This essay relates our experiences teaching student-centric courses that include self-design, self-assessment, and self-grading. We focus on strategies to help students self-assess and self-grade, and we discuss the potential advantages and disadvantages of this pedagogical strategy.

Consensus has emerged about the advantages of self-assessment and self-grading. These practices help students develop into “reflective practitioners” who are better prepared to tackle real-world problems (including any situations in which they will be asked to self-evaluate). They encourage students to take risks, promote independent thinking, enhance problem-solving abilities, and foster engagement with subject matter. In short, self-grading and self-assessment create an environment in which deeper, more transformative learning can occur.

Our experience teaching courses in Music Theory and Hispanic Studies supports these findings. Our courses share several features that are well-suited for student-centric pedagogy. The courses focus on a handful of skills that are difficult to assess by traditional grading schemes. Such skills might include: writing a compelling “think piece” on music criticism; analyzing without score the first movement of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony; modeling large-scale form and narrative in Morton Feldman’s Bass Clarinet and Percussion; forming an interpretation of a new-complexity work by Sciarrino; or demonstrating language proficiency while “Skyping” about guitar making with a Spanish speaker in Peru. Our classes are relatively small—enrollments of majors and non-majors are capped at 20—which enables us to give plenty of attention to individual students. Finally, these courses require the students to design their projects, assess their projects, and grade themselves.

Best practices

We offer the following suggestions to instructors who might like to teach a student-centric class. These are guidelines, not absolutes, and we have arrived at them through years of experimentation, formal and informal student feedback, and our own self-assessment. First, it is paramount to articulate the need for risk-taking and initiative, and to make clear the expectations for the grades of A, B, C, and D, if applicable. (We don’t get embroiled in the subtleties involving +/– grades; it’s too much of a headache.) An instructor might outline benchmarks for competence and fluency in specific tasks; model the process of self-assessment; and show examples of effective (and perhaps ineffective) portfolios and self-reflections from former students. One might also include a clause in the syllabus to maintain the integrity of the grading process, perhaps along the lines of: “Most of the time, you will receive the grade you ask. However, I reserve the right to lower your grade if you have missing, late, or incomplete assignments or self-reflections.” An instructor might also employ penalties for unsatisfactory attendance and participation. (We don’t.)

We ask students early on in the semester to articulate what they want to learn, what excellence might look like for them, and how they will know if they’ve achieved their goals. (We ask knowing that most students will struggle to articulate these outcomes. We are happy to help them work through these issues.) Their responses serve as reference points for their midterm and final self-reflections, for which we ask: What have you learned thus far; and what grade would you give yourself, and why? A midterm self-reflection is critical, because many students are uncomfortable with the idea of self-assessment and self-grading. The midterm exercise provides an opportunity for us to provide direct and honest feedback—to support, affirm, or question their self-reflections. It serves also as a dress rehearsal for the end-of-semester exercise, which we expect to be more thoughtful and more penetrating.

Some pros and cons of a student-centric approach

We have found that self-design, self-assessment, and self-grading put the students more directly in charge of their learning, encourage self-reflective and independent thinking, and help them better achieve—and often surpass—their learning goals. In a foreign language classroom, self-direction facilitates students’ ability to master vocabulary, grammatical structures, and idioms. In a music theory classroom, self-direction allows students to study the pieces they are learning for juries, recitals, or competitions; as a result, harmonic vocabulary, form, and narrative become much more relevant. Through practice and modeling, students learn to write persuasive and realistic self-assessments, as they must account for their successes and failures in their learning process; this is an important life-long skill. Additionally (and perhaps surprisingly) we should add that our students are not quick to award themselves A’s for their efforts. Rather, the overall grades for our self-grading classes are consistently lower than those in our “regular” classes. Often students realize how much more they could have learned, and they grade themselves accordingly.

So, what are the downsides? Student-centered classes usually require instructors to give significant attention to students. Some students struggle to articulate what they want to get out of the class; others are paralyzed by the responsibility of designing and implementing their projects; still others have difficulty setting realistic expectations and holding themselves accountable. It is important to touch base with all of the students throughout the semester to see how they’re doing, to offer encouragement, to suggest ways to deepen their learning, or to give them permission to pursue another direction. (Most students have little or no experience designing their learning outcomes, assessing their learning, and grading themselves.) Instructors who are thinking about implementing self-assessment in their classes might consult Laura Redieh’s “Active Learning and Self-Assessment Handbook.”)

Another potential drawback is that, in our experience, there is invariably at least one “outlier” in each class who, for a variety of reasons, will struggle in a student-centric approach. This student might be risk-averse, unwilling or unable to take charge. He or she might have a significantly higher or lower opinion of his/her work than seems warranted. In such cases, we have a conversation with the student to discuss differences in perspective. While it is true that such conversations can potentially be confrontational, they become far less charged when we keep the focus on the learning. (That is, we focus on the “what” and not the “who.”) It is rare that the instructor and student fail to reach a compromise on the final grade: indeed, for the vast majority of students, the grades requested and the grades awarded differ by no more than a “notch” (that is, B versus B+, or B+ versus A–).

Final thoughts

In conclusion, a student-centric class represents a great opportunity to challenge traditional paradigms by empowering students to take fuller control of their learning. We’ve incorporated the ideas of self-design, self-assessment, and self-grading (individually) to teach Introduction to Music Criticism, 20th-Century Music, Analysis & Performance, Private Readings, and Honors Theses, Intermediate Spanish Language, and various Spanish Conversation Courses. (Some are core courses and others are electives.) Although we occasionally get end-of-semester comments such as “You’re the professor; it’s your job to give grades,” “I have no idea what grade I deserve; something between an A and a C,” or “Just tell me what I need to do to get an A,” we much more often receive comments such as: “This is the best course I’ve ever taken,” and “I’ve learned more than I could have possibly imagined—and it never for a moment felt like work.”

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This work is copyright 2013 Brian Alegant and Barbara Sawhill and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.