Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy

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Towards a Flipped Aural Skills Classroom: Harnessing Recording Technology for Performance-Based Homework

Trevor de Clercq, Middle Tennessee State University

If the recent “unconference” organized by Shaffer, Hughes, and Duker is any indication, the inverted—or “flipped”—classroom model holds much promise for music theory instruction.  In its most common implementation, the inverted classroom model looks something like this: The lecture portion of a course (traditionally done in class) is moved outside of class (as videos assigned to be watched at home), while the problem-solving portion of a course (traditionally done outside of class as homework) is done in class (as individual or group-based work).  The written theory curriculum seems like an obvious candidate for applying inverted-classroom principles, since lecture-based teaching is a common component of these courses.  But how might inverted-classroom principles be applied to the aural skills classroom, which is not typically structured in a lecture format?  

To answer this question, it is worth explicating the motivation behind the inverted-classroom model.  Essentially, inverted-classroom teaching stems from the desire to make more effective use of limited class time by taking advantage of modern technology (e.g., video recording and streaming) to move whatever does not need to take place in the classroom to another forum.  The question thus becomes: What aspect(s) of the traditional aural skills classroom might be moved outside the classroom (as afforded by advances in technology) to free up valuable class time for other activities?  In what follows, I will discuss my experience with one particular aspect—performance-based homework submission and grading—and how I have harnessed recording technology to move prepared aural skills assignments outside the classroom.

Having taught aural skills to undergraduates at four different institutions, I have found performance-based homework submission procedures to be essentially the same across departments.  After each class, one or more melody and rhythm exercises are assigned, and in the next class, the instructor spot-checks this homework by calling on (and grading) a few individuals.  The typical amount of time required to hear and comment on a few students’ homework assignments is usually not excessive—perhaps five to ten minutes total.  But in a 50 minute class, ten minutes represents a significant portion of class time.  Even more problematic (especially given larger sections), this homework submission method means that an instructor has trouble carefully assessing each student on a daily (or even weekly) basis.  A number of strategies can be employed to allay this problem, such as hearing a different student on each phrase or hearing multiple students sing together on the same assignment.  But these solutions are inherently inferior to hearing a single student perform an entire exercise alone, without other students providing a tonal or rhythmic context.  Additionally, it is often difficult to tell—given a problematic performance—whether a student has practiced the assignment well and is truly struggling, whether the student practiced the assignment but did so poorly, or whether the student simply did not prepare for class.    

Perhaps not surprisingly, in-class performance-based homework submission and grading ranks relatively low among students in terms of enjoyment, engagement, and perceived helpfulness as compared to other in-class activities. (This information was gleaned through feedback sheets I distribute periodically throughout the semester.)  This makes sense, since only a fraction of the class is actively participating during in-class homework submission.  Don’t get me wrong; grading homework in class can have beneficial aspects.  It can be an opportunity to offer feedback, have other students practice error detection, discuss practice strategies, etc.  But one could also say that these tactics just make the best out of a non-ideal situation.

To remedy the issues mentioned above, I have had my aural skills students submit prepared performances outside of class for the past three semesters.  The students record themselves (using whatever recording device they have available) and then send the digital file (e.g., .mp3, .aac, .wav) to me over email.  My submission and grading policy has been different in each semester, as I have worked towards (but not yet found) the best implementation.  Inherently, each implementation has its own advantages and disadvantages, which I will discuss in a moment.        

Before doing so, I should address some preliminary issues.  Foremost, an instructor might worry that some students may not have the capacity to record themselves, whether through lack of access to recording technology or the inability to operate it.  I was worried about this issue at first myself; accordingly, I posted online help documents (for Mac and PC) to assist any technophobic individuals and offered private hearings if needed.  I soon realized, however, that my fears were unfounded.  Built-in microphones have been a stock feature on personal computers, mp3 players, and smart phones for many years now; and generally speaking, students today are digital natives.  In the rare case that a student needed help, a brief discussion would clear up the issue.  For the submission process itself, I set up dedicated gmail accounts for each course.  Separating the flood of homework emails from my other accounts helped avoid the distraction of incoming homework emails, and so I would check the course-related email account only when it was time to do grading.

In the first semester, with second-semester freshman and sophomore musicianship classes, I implemented a complete performance-based homework flip.  I assigned one melody and one rhythm exercise each class, for which emailed recordings were due by the next class meeting.  I would respond to each submitted exercise with a letter grade (e.g., B+), along with detailed feedback about what I found successful and unsuccessful in the performance as well as suggestions for improvement if appropriate.  With a regular flow of emailed recordings, I could easily discern when a student was having trouble with a particular aspect of the course and schedule a meeting soon thereafter.  Moreover, it was very clear to the students what was required for a particular grade (as opposed to in-class grading, the results of which are often not made available).  The student response to this process was extremely positive overall.  Admittedly, a few students did not submit homework on a regular basis, but now I could discuss this issue with them directly, instead of wondering exactly how much or how often they were practicing.  

With homework submission occurring outside of class, I now had more time to devote to other in-class activities: more time for duets, trios, and other ensemble singing; more time to play interactive games (à la Rifkin and Urista 2006); more time for sight-singing and unprepared work.  In essence, I had more time to take advantage of the potential that the classroom setting has to offer.

As some readers may have already guessed, one serious disadvantage of the completely flipped performance-based homework system is the heavy grading load outside of class.  This is a significant difference from the traditional model, where aural skills instructors have few grading responsibilities once class ends.  In part because of the minimal grading responsibilities outside of class, instructors typically receive minimal course load credits for aural skills teaching.  For example, in the semester that followed my first homework flip implementation, I was slated to teach four sections of aural skills and two sections of written theory, with three of the four aural skills classes meeting three times a week.  With this load, a complete homework flip for each aural skills section was not sustainable.  Yet I could not let the experiment end!

After some thinking, I decided for the following semester to flip only one of my aural skills sections, a first-semester sophomore-level honors class.  I chose this section because it met only twice a week (and was thus particularly short on in-class time), but also because these honors students were already relatively good at sight-singing.  They needed (and actually requested) to be challenged.  So as before, I assigned one melody and one rhythm with each class meeting, but this time I set formidable tempo requirements to obtain an “A” grade.  (After all, the goal of prepared exercises is not just competency but also fluency.)  It quickly became apparent that most of the students were able to achieve A-level performances (despite the tempo requirements), and I found myself awarding many As or A-s, rarely anything lower.  In short, they could either do it or they couldn’t.  The non-A grades (typically Cs and lower) often seemed to be the result of some fundamental misunderstanding or difficulty with the exercise.  In these cases, I allowed the struggling student to resubmit the exercise (once) for a new grade.  I would rather a struggling student take a little longer to master a skill than to move on before fully mastering it.

I came to realize that this approach—a basic implementation of mastery learning—could (at least in part) address the grading load problem involved with a straightforward homework flip.  Assigning detailed grades (e.g., “Is this melody a C+ or a B–?”) with detailed explanations was the most time-consuming aspect of the original flip.  Moreover, I wondered if students really read and digested my comments, or whether they just looked at the grade and moved on (“Oh, I got a B.  Ho hum.”)  Consequently, I tried a new strategy in the next (third and final) semester (with two aural skills sections, both second-semester freshmen-level classes).  Instead of having students submit recordings of solo melody or rhythm exercises, I required each student to submit five sing-and-play performances.  (Students would sing a melody of their choice from the class anthology while accompanying themselves at the piano with a harmonization of their own composition.)  Each of these sing-and-play assignments was worth 1% of the class grade, and each was graded on a pass/fail basis.  Most submissions passed, and these passing submissions required minimal comments (and time) from me.  For those submissions that did not pass, I would reply in detail with the exact reasons.  The student with a failing sing-and-play could then take these suggestions and resubmit.  

I should confess now that in this third semester, I continued to employ traditional in-class homework submission and grading.  But in-class homework was worth less than it would have been in a traditional grading rubric overall, since the sing-and-play exercises contributed to the prepared portion of the total grade; as a result, I spent less time grading in class than I would have under a traditional paradigm.  The homework policy for this third semester might be described, therefore, as a partial flip.  A partial flip arguably captures the best of both worlds, for there are certainly advantages to in-class homework submission.  In addition to those mentioned previously, an in-class performance helps a student learn how to deal with performance anxiety; it allows the instructor to see how a student conducts and acts while performing; it allows students to hear their peers (although this could be accomplished by posting submissions to a shared web site); and it does (for better or for worse) cut down on the out-of-class time required of the instructor.

In future aural skills courses, I plan to balance the flipped and traditional homework paradigms more evenly.  For example, my Fall 2013 musicianship classes will have a recorded performance assignment due once a week, graded on a pass/fail basis.  These assignments will represent the more difficult performance-based tasks (such as long chromatic melodies, two-part rhythms, and sing-and-plays), so as to give each student a chance to spend the time necessary for mastery.  (Resubmissions will be accepted.)  As far as in-class homework submission goes, I have yet to decide whether to devote only one day a week to it, simply less time in every class, or some other scenario.    

Ultimately, I cannot report that I have found the perfect paradigm for performance-based homework.  What I do know, however, is that I will continue to require recorded performance submissions from my aural skills students, even though a complete flip seems somewhat impractical.  Nonetheless, as more performance-based homework is submitted and graded outside of class, I can spend more time in class on other activities.  Now if I only had more time outside of class!

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This work is copyright 2013 Trevor de Clercq and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.