Sara Bakker and Timothy Chenette, Utah State University
Music theory is a major part of the academic core of any music curriculum, and one of the foundations of academia is writing. When writing is assigned in music theory classes, it is often an academic paper with a suggested page length. Academic papers require a large set of skills, from structuring communication, to perceptive analysis, to use of academic language: practicing these skills together may not always be the best way to teach or test them. In this essay, we will suggest thinking carefully about the goals and benefits of any writing assignment, list many types of assignments that can broaden our understanding of the value of writing in music theory classes, and, finally, suggest ways to improve student writing in the course of an assignment.
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of writing is that as a synoptic activity, and as a set of component skills (citing sources, using appropriate terminology, etc.), it builds a foundation for success in academia. While this is valuable, writing’s benefits go far beyond this. The following list of benefits and goals may help instructors identify their priorities, facilitating tailored assignments such as those listed in Section 2. They can also help instructors design alternative assessments/activities for students with learning disabilities or ESL students, who may achieve these goals more appropriately in other ways.
Writing aids in effective communication, as it:
Writing also promotes student engagement, as it:
Perhaps most important in an academic setting, writing promotes critical thinking, as it:
The benefits of writing as a promoter of effective communication, student engagement, and critical thinking, accrue in all sorts of writing assignments, including the traditional paper. The production of a good academic paper (or not), however, is not necessarily an indication of progress towards these objectives. Some students will learn more from working through several smaller assignments with more specific, component goals.
As mentioned above, traditional analytical term papers are synoptic, integrating and synthesizing various kinds of knowledge and experience that students have accumulated throughout the semester. To help instructors focus on specific goals, the table below suggests a wide variety of writing projects. It is organized into the three categories of objectives defined above: communication, engagement, and critical thinking. These categories are loosely chronological, somewhat overlapping, and necessarily cumulative, but they provide a useful framework for focusing on specific writing and learning goals. Under each category are sample assignments, written as prompts, that could be used to address the given skill. Some prompts could be literally copied and pasted into an assignment, while others use blanks ( ______ ) and then list several possible “fillers” to broaden the applicability of that assignment. In all cases, however, the greatest value of this list is not in its attempt to be comprehensive, but to help instructors focus on ways to achieve specific goals.
Improving and clarifying comprehension
Collaborating and peer-mentoring
Fostering creativity in thought and analysis
Encouraging ownership of analysis
Relating class content to careers in music
Questioning one’s assumptions
Integrating perspectives (analytical or disciplinary)
Evaluating ideas and drawing conclusions from evidence
These writing activities need not be assigned as out-of-class work to be turned in on paper. Modifications can turn the same prompt into in-class activities, short homework tasks, or polished presentations. They can also be assigned to various formats, from hard-copy documents and shared Google Docs to various online forums, such as personal blogs and Twitter. Some formats, especially the latter two, are not traditionally included in academic study, but are useful in helping students realize that intelligent writing about music does not occur exclusively in the academic paper. Furthermore, nontraditional formats may be helpful in attaining certain learning goals, as in the forced concision of Twitter.
Communication with students about assignments is always necessarily incomplete—it is impossible to fully explain, for example, everything that could go into a good “thesis statement.” This difficulty is compounded by the fact that students and teachers tend to view assignments and their purposes very differently, a phenomenon studied here and here. Thus, students are unlikely to get everything “right” the first time without any help. This section suggests some student-centered ways of improving both students’ writing, and the benefits instructors expect them to get out of such writing, in the course of an assignment. This is not an exhaustive list: common approaches such as reading well-written articles and making outlines are not included. In addition, several activities from the table above, particularly those labeled “Collaborating and peer-mentoring” and “Structuring communication,” are useful here.
Giving students open-ended and wide-ranging assignments is important, but if specific goals are to be achieved, instructors should help students focus on them. First, instructors can make clear to students the purpose of a writing assignment: to put together a synoptic analysis, to demonstrate effective communication, to reflect creatively on the class, etc. Knowing the goal will have a dramatic effect on students’ approaches to the material. In addition, the purpose of the assignment should affect how it is graded: students consistently take grading schemes into account when performing tasks. This relates to the necessity to give focused feedback, helping students know where to spend their time. Fixing grammar and spelling mistakes, for example, may suggest to students that simply adopting these edits is as important as making structural changes, and is unlikely to make a long-term impact on student learning.
Many skills can be improved by making a self-review or peer-review process a part of the assignment. For example, a rubric on the paper’s structure to be turned in with a rough draft can help students realize on their own where to start when making revisions: an example is given here. This procedure requires clear communication about what will be graded: rough draft, rubric, or both. In general, rubrics work for most goals, although a checklist, summary, or other self-review may be more appropriate for some.
One of the most difficult aspects of writing to encourage is creativity: students may associate grade risk with writing something that is not clearly the only right answer. For this reason, creativity may best be fostered in an atmosphere where writing assignments are not directly graded, are graded on completion, and/or are treated as a dialogue with an instructor (e.g., on a Google Doc) rather than as a completed product for grading. Creative prompts (“What is your favorite part of this piece?”) may also suggest room for creativity.
In the end, our classes are about both learning and assessment. Both of these elements work best in situations where our goals are clear. The synoptic activity of academic writing is a wonderful goal, one that requires and stimulates many ways of thinking. But the path to that goal will be more effective if we understand its many components, and help our students to do the same. Working on these skills in more controlled assignments may be less work for student and teacher, and more satisfying for students who want to know “what the teacher wants”—and yet will also form stepping stones throughout the semester and throughout the curriculum to greater successes in communication, engagement, and critical thinking.
This work is copyright ⓒ2014 Sara Bakker and Timothy Chenette and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.