Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy

Table of Contents

Capturing Thinking in Time — Using “Clickers” to Measure Student Understanding

Philip Duker, The University of Delaware

In addition to the benefits of using “clickers” (AKA student response systems) in a classroom to foster a more engaged environment (click here for a quick intro), clickers also offer the opportunity to measure how students are understanding and processing information in real time. “Keeping the poll open” and asking students questions while they are listening/watching is a very useful way to find out how they are able to apply theoretical ideas. Although the examples in this essay focus on music, keeping the poll open could be applied to other time-based arts, or even in other disciplines when a teacher wants to observe how students are processing information as it changes. For a very generic example of this in action, see the following video:

Generic Video (Philip Duker) from FlipCamp on Vimeo.


I first began using this method to see how well my students were able to apply formal terminology while listening to music during class. While many of them could point to measures in the score to tell me where certain formal sections started or ended (e.g., the 2nd group starts in m. 23), I wanted them to be able to apply these terms without a score as a visual aid. Before using clickers, I would project the “timeline” of the recording at the front of the class while listening, and ask students to write down timepoints when new sections began. While this is certainly a viable possibility, it does not let you know how the class is doing as a whole unless you collect and grade their work. I also experimented with getting students to submit an online form with mixed success. Having an online form allowed me to get an aggregate picture of how the students were understanding the form of a piece, but it was still impractical to use during class as it took too much time to process and organize the answers of that many people. Lastly, giving feedback to students after the class meeting is not as productive because many of them will have forgotten what they were thinking about during a listening exercise (even if earlier that day).

When I first started using clickers in the core theory classes, I began experimenting with how students could apply sonata form concepts in real time (this approach could compliment the one described in Alegant 2008). By opening up a multiple-choice poll and keeping it open while students were listening to a piece, I could see how the class (as a whole) was following the music. The students would click a new answer when they heard the piece move into a different formal section, and I would view their updated answers instantly as the software updated the histogram. I could immediately know what percentage of the class was recognizing the beginning of each formal section, and then address and discuss any unclear passages if needed.


In addition to measuring how students apply formal concepts in real time, keeping the poll open is applicable to a number of other realms of the core theory curriculum. It can be used to track harmonic functions, as the following example illustrates:

Phrase Model Demo (Philip Duker) from FlipCamp on Vimeo.

As you might expect, using clickers in real time is also useful in aural skills classes, such as asking students to indicate their hearing through the Do/Ti test (Daniel Stevens’s creative development of the guide-tone method). I have also found it to be a useful tool for engaging students with regard to 20th-century music, by letting them rate pieces according to how dissonant/consonant they sound. Even more generally, keeping the poll open while you lecture can allow students to give you feedback if they are not following or understanding what you are presenting.

As I have used this technique more, I have become less concerned with capturing student answers for a nominal grade; rather I see it as a way to follow how well students are understanding and applying concepts while listening to music. Even when a class has wildly different answers from what I would have hoped, the experience becomes a good catalyst for discussing why the piece in question was difficult to parse aurally, and more generally how certain listening strategies can be more or less productive when engaging a given style.

How to get started?

This technique of keeping the poll open builds off more general uses of a clicker system in the classroom. The first step to take if you are not already using clickers would be to get in touch with your IT department or otherwise find out if there is a campus-wide adoption of a clicker system. You might not choose to go with that vendor in the end, but if it will meet your needs, then your students will not need to purchase multiple devices for different classes, and you can rely on some IT support.

You’ll want to be sure that the clicker system you choose will allow you to see student responses change while the poll is open (the two vendors I have used, iClicker and Turning Technologies, both had no problems with this kind of activity). Unfortunately, I have found that web-enabled devices (such as polling apps, or interactive websites and the like) are not ideal for this technique. Although they are certainly improving, the latency involved with web interfaces (i.e., the time it takes for signals to go from the student’s device through the internet to your machine) does not reliably allow you to use this technique in real time. That said, if your classroom has a fast and consistent internet connection, it would certainly be worth a try if you like the other advantages of these web-based systems. If this is the first time you are using clickers, there are a number of best-practices resources that are very helpful concerning their general adoption and use. Many vendors also have a number of helpful resources, such as this advice page from iClicker.

Once you have a clicker system up and running, you next need to decide on which concepts you would like to assess in this way. As mentioned above, keeping the poll open is especially useful for assessing student understanding of formal concepts and also large scale harmonic functions. When you decide what you would like to assess, you will need to take some time to design your multiple choice options for the activity. I have found that short moments in pieces (such as cadences in a fast tempo) happen too quickly for most students to click accurately in real time, and that missing these moments can quickly become frustrating. Although pausing is an option, students often perform better when there are longer formal sections (lasting at least a few seconds), and I usually design the first few exercises to include pieces that slowly change so that the students can feel successful.

It is also important to limit the number of multiple choice options so as to not overwhelm the students (although building up a larger set of options slowly over the term is a possibility worth considering). For example, I use the following choices when asking students to indicate sections in the exposition of a sonata form:

A) 1st Group
B) Transition
    (Medial Caesura – optional)
C) 2nd Group
D) Coda/Codetta

Having these four options is detailed enough to see whether they are following the exposition, while at the same time it does not overwhelm the students with too many choices. Further, by indicating when the Medial Caesura occurs (in some pieces), it gives them a landmark to get back on track if they hear that event.

The next steps are likely familiar to those who teach music: choosing the best examples to illustrate the ideas under discussion, and deciding on the best sequence of activities. As with any new undertaking that students are not used to, leave plenty of time and have patience with the first few exercises. Once they are comfortable with the general process of using clickers in this way, new exercises and applications usually go quite smoothly. Measuring and emphasizing how students apply the various ideas and concepts in a classroom can help ensure that they are building the bridge between the world of music scholarship and the music they experience.

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This work is copyright 2013 Philip Duker and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.