Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 2

Table of Contents

CAT got your tongue? Adapting Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) for the Music Classroom

Janet Bourne, Northwestern University

We teach the same way we were taught. As someone who sat through lectures as an undergraduate music student, I was frightened entering the classroom as an instructor. Like other people—I am sure—I did not want students to just memorize information, but instead think deeper about music. During my pedagogical dabbling, I found that adopting Thomas Angelo and K. Patricia Cross’ perspective from Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers helped me engage my students. They cultivate an approach that is “learner-centered, teacher-directed, mutually beneficial, formative, context-specific, ongoing, and firmly rooted in good practice” (Angelo and Cross 1993, 4). Each of these “buzzwords” reflects a student-centered approach to teaching aimed at active learning in classrooms—learning is an ongoing, formative process where teachers gather information to help students succeed.

The ideas of “student-centered” and “active learning” have spread throughout contemporary pedagogy—music classes (thankfully!) have not been immune. Kris Shaffer and Bryn Hughes wrote about “flipping the classroom,” a prevalent way to promote active learning: “In a basic flip, information transfer is handled outside of class through readings or video (micro)lectures, so that class time can be devoted to active student work.” Shaffer mentions teaching species counterpoint using this approach where students read a chapter or watch a video before so class time can be used to work through exercises and revisit material as needed. In this essay, I adapt Angelo and Cross’ approach f0r the music classroom, specifically their Classroom Assessment Techniques.

The heart of Angelo and Cross’ approach lies in their fifty Classroom Assessment Techniques (or CATs): low-prep, concrete activities for assessing and improving student learning. They describe these fifty “feedback devices” as tools in a “tool chest” that teachers can use as needed (Angelo and Cross, 105). Each CAT is designed to assess one of ten different things, and so they are grouped into ten sections depending on what they assess. To further integrate CATs with current teaching philosophies, it is useful to note that many CAT sections align with Bloom’s Taxonomy—a graph that organizes cognitive engagement from lower-level to higher-level thinking. Those who use Bloom’s Taxonomy to create learning objectives could use a parallel CAT to assess these objectives. Multiple websites—such as Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching—offer further advice on implementing CATs.

For example, “Muddiest Point” is a common CAT for assessing prior knowledge, recall, and understanding (section I). In the last few minutes of class, students write down an answer (usually anonymously) to: “What was the muddiest point in _____?” then give their responses to the teacher. Since I often use this CAT right before reviewing for a test, I ask “What was the muddiest point in this unit?” I notice patterns of misunderstanding when I review the responses; multiple students may not know the difference between an escape tone and an appoggiatura. A teacher can use this information to better gauge what concepts need review before an exam.

When I first learned about CATs, I was excited to use them with my current sophomore music theory class. While some—such as the “Muddiest Point”—worked well, I realized that many fit history or math classes better than music theory. For example, the “What’s the Principle?” CAT, where students identify principle(s) to solve various problems, naturally fits math better than aural skills. I found myself wondering: which CATs would be the most appropriate for music pedagogy? How could I tweak those that may be less “appropriate” for use in a music classroom? Here are the fruits of these musings: I discuss three different CATs that I adapted and used in my sophomore theory classroom this past year. Though I discuss these explicitly for music theory, I imagine many would work well for music history, aural skills, and other music classes.

“Pro and Con Grid” → “Analytical Techniques Pro and Con Grid”

Section: II. Assessing Skill in Analysis and Critical Thinking

Title: Pro and Con Grid

Description: Students list pros/cons, costs/benefits, advantages/disadvantages of an issue, question or value of competing claims.

Music Theory Adaptation: Analytical Techniques Pro and Con Grid

Looking at twentieth century music, many would agree that set theory and twelve-tone analysis are the most prominent analytical techniques. I could tell students seemed confused when to use one over the other. I did not want students to use a method simply because I told them; instead, I wanted them to think critically about the analytical benefits of each. So, I asked students to write pros and cons for set theory and twelve-tone analysis. Independently, students listed many reasons for using—and not using—these methods while also situating them among other analytical techniques we had learned. For instance, they noted that set theory creates arguments for a unifying and coherent piece, while twelve-tone comprehensively accounts for most every note.

I find this CAT useful for helping students think critically about different analytical techniques, preparing them for analysis “in the wild.” As students become more and more independent, they cannot always rely on professors to give them straightforward assignments, but instead need to learn on their own what techniques are appropriate and how they interact with others.

Further Applications:

A pro and con grid does not have to stop with comparing set theory and twelve-tone analysis, but can be expanded to look at other analytical techniques as well. Instructors can also vary the task depending on his or her learning objectives, or even have different “stages” to the assignment. The first stage could resemble the previous example: asking students to list pros and cons for methods as more or less appropriate for exploring something significant about a piece (e.g., analysts often use set theory to argue for coherence or unity). This works especially well to correct confusion students may have on the purpose of an analytical technique.

In a second stage, students could apply this knowledge to write pros and cons for methods with the purpose of analyzing a specific piece. Consider a student who has been exposed to sonata form, Roman numeral analysis, and ways to analyze meter and rhythm. If they encounter a piece, say a Mozart piano piece, what method should they use to analyze it? Often, teachers expect students to jump from being told how to analyze pieces to analyzing pieces on their own. Students writing pros and cons for analytical techniques may be a middle step from being dependent on a professor to an independent analyst. Say a student has a handout for listening to this Mozart piano piece with a place to write “pros” and “cons” for multiple methods. Maybe the piece has an uninteresting sonata form so s/he writes “obeys the rules” under “sonata cons.” But maybe s/he notices unexpected meter and rhythmic ambiguity, something that s/he could write under “meter/rhythm pros.”

William Marvin in Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis advises students writing analytical essays to determine “what is normative (i.e., aspects of the piece that are common to many other pieces) and what is unusual and special about the work(s) under consideration” (xiii). A student can use their pro and con grid to determine what is “unusual” or “special” about that piece—a stepping stone from being clueless to feeling confident in analyzing music. This assignment—meant for beginning independent analysts—can help students learn what features are (non-)normative in a piece—what may be uninteresting and what may be worth analyzing further—so to use that knowledge for deeper stages of analysis. For example, students using the grid as a guide could write a thesis statement for an analytical essay on the piece or a presentation on performing the piece. Students can use these experiences to develop “tools” in an analytical “toolbox”—a guide for beginning the process—so later in their musical life they can use these tools to interpret new pieces or styles.

“Concept Maps” → “Piece Maps”

Section: III. Assessing Skill in Synthesis and Creative Thinking

Title: Concept Maps

Description: Students draw or diagram the mental connections they make between a major concept and other concepts they have learned.

Music theory adaptation: Piece Maps

For this CAT, I give students a handout and ask them to diagram concepts/connections/composers associated with different pieces. At the end, there are multiple lines and connections—similar to other concept maps—but with pieces as multiple beginning points. For example, Lutoslawski’s Mi-Parti and Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna use aleatoric counterpoint and micropolyphony respectively, so students connect these terms to their respective pieces. Next, I ask students to consider how pieces connect to each other. For Mi-Parti and Lux Aeterna, both explore the possibilities of musical texture. This CAT begins as an exercise in remembering terms associated with isolated pieces, but ends with students finding connections between multiple pieces discussed over the unit. This CAT—which I often use to prep students for repertoire exam questions—is most relevant for classes where pieces are difficult to contextualize and have certain “buzzwords”—as in the Lutoslawski and Ligeti example above. It has flexibility in implementation—as it could be something students create in class alone or in small groups, a homework assignment, or part of a larger project.

Further Applications:

This CAT would help students learn chords as well, particularly harmonic function. Teachers often parade many chords in front of students (augmented sixth chords, Neapolitan, etc.). We tell them the chord’s function or write it on a handout and expect them simply to remember. After a multiple-chord parade, it might be helpful to give students a handout with “tonic,” “predominant,” and “dominant” “bubbles” and ask them to diagram chords according to function (while also writing significant part-writing rules). For example, under “predominant,” students could diagram “Neapolitan chord,” and under “Neapolitan,” diagram that “‘ra’ resolves to ‘ti’.” This assignment could not only solidify chords’ functions in memory and connect chords to each other, but also help clarify why chords have these functions. This written exercise feeds easily into a composition assignment: given a certain bassline—or melody line—write as many predominant–dominant–tonic chord progressions as possible using the concept map as a guide. An aural skills assignment could feasibly follow where students arpeggiate each chord progression or use the map as a listening guide for transcription or dictation.

“Invented Dialogues” → “Theorist/Composer Dialogues”

Section: III. Assessing Skill in Synthesis and Creative Thinking

Title: Invented Dialogues

Description: Students synthesize their knowledge of issues, personalities, and historical periods into the form of carefully structured illustrative conversation; 2 levels of invention (select and weave quotes from primary sources or invent reasonable quotes that fit characters and context)

Music theory adaptation: Theorist/Composer Dialogues

While a music history class at first glance seems an obvious home for invented dialogues, I also wanted to adapt it for music theory. In particular, I wanted students to place theorists in dialogue with each other: why might Leonard Meyer argue for one thing and Allen Forte another? What do these theorists consider effective evidence? How might students of music theory think about these questions and ultimately build critical thinking skills?

I took the opportunity when my students learned about Stravinsky’s Petrushka Chord to turn invented dialogues into a “real-time” classroom activity. I said: “Perhaps one scholar argues this chord is “bitonal” while another scholar argues it is “octatonic.” Can you figure out what Stravinsky intended? Does that matter? If it does, how would you figure it? Pretend that I am the internet and ask me questions.” First, I gave everyone a minute to write down possible questions on their own. Afterwards, I gave them a minute to discuss with each other in small groups. Then, everyone came together as a class to ask their questions (some might recognize this as “think-pair-share”).

The questions I received nicely mirrored Bloom’s taxonomy; students began with more knowledge or comprehension questions:

  • “Was Stravinsky aware of the octatonic scale?”
  • “Did Stravinsky write about this piece at all?”

I—acting as the “internet”—answered their questions to the best of my abilities. Slowly, I began to take on personas of relevant scholars (particularly, Dmitri Tymoczko and Richard Taruskin). As a side note, I found acting as different personas a perk since the students did not know my perspective as the teacher. This automatically dissuades “strategic learners”—students interested in saying what they think the teacher wants to hear—since they did not know my opinion. As I answered as different personas, I noticed their questions shift from just knowledge and recall to more critical thinking—essentially, questions at the heart of the debate. For example:

  • “Should music analysis take into account history?”
  • “What does analysis consider important evidence?”

I sometimes answered these questions multiple times as different scholars so they could compare approaches. I noticed students tied these scholars’ perspectives to experiences we had in the classroom. One student voiced: “Doing Roman numeral analysis, we mostly just looked at the music. Should we think about history now?”

Instead of asking students to write down a dialogue, I acted out a dialogue in front of the class. However, students provided questions and took control of the dialogue’s direction. Even though we did not reach a conclusive answer in relation to content that day, it helped my sophomores’ thought process of working through issues regarding evidence and analysis.

Further applications

In a similar vein, this CAT could help document a student’s mental activity for composition assignments where they need to compose in a certain style (or even a shorter part-writing assignment). Along with the composition, students could write a dialogue between a “master” and an “apprentice” where the “apprentice” explains why s/he made certain compositional choices. In assessing the composition, a teacher could see if students made certain mistakes. If so, is there something in the written dialogue to explain why they made the mistakes they did? Often, assignments show teachers where students made wrong turns, but it is more difficult to know why these wrong turns were made. A variation of this CAT could help remedy such a problem as well as pull together both the “doing” of composition and writing.


Interviews and studies with teachers have shown not only that teachers enjoy using CATs, but that students find CATs effective as well. As I taught my class this year, CATs gave me a concrete starting point for assessment and engaging students—something else to “hang my hat on” than imitating the undergraduate experience I had. Students’ end-of-term comments over the year reflected a recognition and value of CATs. A number of students mentioned that the class discussions made the experience “engaging” or they felt “involved,” and many noted (positively!) that I did not “spoon feed” them the material. In the end, CATs create an engaging classroom environment while at the same time assessing what students do and do not know.

This work is copyright ⓒ2014 Janet Bourne and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.