Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 2

Table of Contents

Part 1: Problem-Based Learning in the Music Classroom, A Rationale

Daniel Stevens, University of Delaware

I first encountered PBL as a graduate piano student, when my teacher circled a single note in a Bach Sinfonia and asked me to return next week to explain and defend how long the note should be held. To answer this question, I drew on my knowledge of Baroque articulation, counterpoint, and dissonance treatment. (I have since turned this question into a short PBL problem designed to introduce theory students to these topics.) While my teacher undoubtedly taught me how to articulate countless other notes over my course of study, it was this lesson that has had staying power far beyond all others. By engaging in a real problem and drawing on multiple sources of knowledge to find a solution, I learned not only how to articulate the note in question but many others as well.

PBL occurs when “learning is initiated by a posed problem, query, or puzzle that the learner wants to solve” (Duch, Groh, and Allen 2001). As Boud and Feletti (1997) explain, PBL “is a way of conceiving of the curriculum as being centred upon key problems in professional practice.” Typically, the questions posed in a PBL problem have no straightforward, easy answers. PBL questions challenge learners to acquire new knowledge and deeper understanding, to apply knowledge within new domains, and to see problems from a variety of perspectives.

This description should seem familiar, since addressing challenging questions is precisely what drives faculty research and learning. And yet, a persistent irony in higher education is that many teachers do not teach in the way that they themselves learn as professionals and scholars, substituting programmed instruction for methods that nourish inquisitive and critical thinking. PBL, by contrast, offers students a learning environment that is inquiry-driven, student-centered, experiential, and collaborative: an environment in which learning is relevant to real problems faced by students in the discipline and beyond. By cultivating curiosity and creative application of learning, PBL fosters lifelong and lifewide learning.

Teaching and Learning Objectives

Faculty who have adopted PBL usually emphasize the educational objectives it supports, including higher-order cognition, relevance, retention of learning, and collaborative learning.

Higher-order Cognition. PBL promotes Bloom’s higher-order cognition (i.e. evaluation, synthesis, creation) by situating the learning of knowledge and skills in contexts that require critical thinking and application. Adopting PBL brings conventional learning objectives (e.g. spelling secondary dominants, history of opera) into balance with the thinking and application skills that give course content leverage and relevance. Harold White connects the problem of overemphasizing course content with the influence of textbooks in higher education when he notes that some textbooks are “[s]o removed…from the practice of science that they convey the impression that science is a collection of facts and concepts rather than a powerful way to cultivate curiosity and learn about the natural world” (White 2001a). When teachers see themselves as talking textbooks (see Peter Schubert’s (2013) humorously candid account), education is further reduced to the transmission of knowledge and students to the containers that memorize and reproduce knowledge on quizzes, homework, and exams. PBL places students at the center of learning by requiring them to utilize disciplinary sources of knowledge critically and creatively to solve real-world problems. As the primary agents in their educational experience, students become independent learners who are adept at thinking through data, creating evidence-based arguments, and sorting through complex problems.

Relevance. Often, faculty are skeptical of PBL because they fear the method will diminish knowledge acquisition. (Lieux 2001 and Bowe and Cowan 2004 provide evidence suggesting that knowledge acquisition between PBL and lecture-based classes is comparable.)  No matter how well students learn basic content, this learning will not help them if they do not understand its pertinence to other areas of their musical lives. When learning is approached incrementally through programmed instruction, the relation of learning to everyday musical challenges only emerges gradually, if at all. Commenting on the standards of creativity, communication, and synthesis upheld by the NASM handbook, Anna Gawboy (2013) says “If we are to meet these standards, we must help students apply their knowledge in contexts that are relevant to their musical and professional development.” PBL accomplishes this goal by starting with these contexts, such that learning is always directed toward and coordinated by the problems facing our students in their musical and professional lives, both currently and in the future. Using PBL helps our students see music courses like theory and history as a practice (and not as a collection of facts) that is directly relevant to the way they perform, perceive, and appreciate music.

Retention. Because PBL allows students to integrate the practice of theory and history into their overall practice of music, long-range retention of learning is significantly improved over fact-based pedagogical methods. In their meta-analysis of eight different studies, Strobel and van Barneveld (2009) conclude that PBL favors faculty and student satisfaction, long-range knowledge retention, development of performance skill sets, and mixed-knowledge retention over lecture-based courses, which consistently favor short-term knowledge retention. Albanese and Mitchell (1993) and Berkson (1993) show that students in PBL courses display skills associated with learning retention, including self-directed learning, problem solving, information gathering, self-evaluation techniques, and perceiving the meaning of their learning.

Collaborative Learning. PBL supports other important educational outcomes such as collaborative learning. By engaging in group-based PBL, students benefit from the opportunity to think about problems from different perspectives, to practice making arguments for their positions, and to see learning as community building. For more information about collaborative learning, see Barbara J. Millis (2010)Duch, Groh, and Allen (2001), and Schwartz, Mennin, and Webb (2001), each of whom provide useful suggestions for implementing, managing, facilitating, and assessing group work in a PBL classroom.

The higher-order learning objectives supported by PBL call for new approaches to student assessment and grading (see Kris Shaffer’s suggestions in Part III). But before we can assess these learning objectives, they must be clearly communicated to the students alongside the traditional, curricular learning objectives that define our course syllabi. Harold White (2001a) and Vanessa Vega (2012) provide good options, including becoming intellectually independent learners, recognizing and confronting areas of personal ignorance, improving problem-solving skills, and learning to organize logical arguments based on evidence.

Implementation and Impediments

In Part II, Philip Duker provides some example PBL problems  designed for music theory courses and comments on their implementation. The Institute for Transforming Undergraduate Education at the University of Delaware offers a library of model PBL problems, many of which were written by early PBL pioneers. Duch, Groh, and Allen 2001 and Vega 2012 provide useful suggestions for transitioning from traditional pedagogy to PBL. As each of the above resources demonstrate, PBL is extraordinarily flexible in its application. Instructors can construct PBL problems and incorporate them into course schedules in a variety of ways. This process should be guided by three questions:

  • What prerequisite knowledge and skills are students expected to have?
  • What are the learning goals (both lower and higher) that students will be expected to achieve?
  • In what real-world situations would students apply this learning to solve a problem or create something new?

In my own teaching, I have had the greatest success by varying the type of PBL problem employed. Sometimes, the problems are short and focused, such as when students are asked to demonstrate that they have learned terminology. For example, students could be asked to report their own vocal range in terms of a common pitch-register designation system. Other problems can be complex and open-ended, such that no clear solution emerges (e.g. Phil Duker’s “A day in the life of a forensic musicologist”). PBL problems can be situated in real, historical contexts, thereby encouraging students to consider how their learning is relevant to their musical practice in present and future professional situations. Another approach is to structure PBL problems around important scholarly articles of the discipline (see Harold White 2001a). This example problem modifies a pedagogical technique common to graduate courses by using an essay by Carl Schachter as a primer for learning music fundamentals. Students in lower-level theory and history courses who are introduced to core content through reading scholarly works benefit from the opportunity to see and criticize how content is used in practice, to place ideas in their historical and disciplinary contexts, and to be better prepared for upper-level seminars. Finally, faculty can use PBL to create collaborations between music students and those in other disciplines. Interdisciplinary and outreach-oriented PBL problems offer limitless opportunities to teach both students and the community the relevance of student learning to problems that lie far outside the walls of the classroom.

It is advisable that PBL be implemented slowly. PBL need not be utilized to the exclusion of all other teaching methods, but can be incorporated occasionally throughout the semester. Elizabeth G. Armstrong (1997) suggests ways to structure a hybrid PBL class that features both lecture and PBL lab activities. Instructors who already use flipped pedagogy may find PBL to be a productive use of class time: one that amplifies their role as facilitator and places student inquiry at the center of learning. Harold White 2001a suggests using PBL as a catalyst for short mini-lectures during class, given only when students arrive at a conceptual impasse. However the instructor balances PBL and traditional lecturing or other activities, the goal is to empower students to become self-directed learners. To this end, incorporating PBL invites instructors to become learning facilitators who guide students toward answers and are equally satisfied letting challenging problems go unresolved.

Three common impediments to PBL involve time management, student dissatisfaction, and institutional resistance. Time management is a concern brought to PBL by faculty who wonder how they can fit in a time-consuming activity into an already busy course schedule. As alluded to above, flipped pedagogy can relieve some of the time management concerns, providing students time in class to work on challenging problems that would not otherwise be suitable for homework. Nonetheless, adopting PBL invites serious reflection about educational priorities, including what content can be minimized or cut to allow time for students to develop problem-solving skills.

Resistance to PBL can also come from students and from the institution. Understandably, many students feel anxiety and discomfort when confronted with a problem to which there is no easy answer, and some students will inevitably voice their discomfort as a complaint (e.g. “the teacher is not teaching!” or “the instructor is only confusing us!”). When these complaints reach fellow faculty and administration, it is not unusual to hear similar concerns coming from multiple parties. To avoid these criticisms (and to respond to them when they occur), faculty adopting PBL are encouraged to explain to students and faculty alike that one goal of the course is to learn how to learn. The process of recognizing intellectual limits and overcoming deficiencies is never a comfortable one; as Kris Shaffer recently explained, it is a “productive discomfort” that allows students to change the way they experience music, learning, and life itself (for more, see Shaffer’s Open Letter to my Students).

Final Thoughts

With my Bach Sinfonia in hand, I returned the following week to my piano lesson and explained that the circled note participated in a dissonance in the following measure and thus should be held long enough for the interval of resolution to be heard. My teacher responded positively but went on to lament how few students knew how to address the problem. Aside from teaching me the value and power of PBL, this first encounter continues to impress upon me the importance of teaching students the relevance and applicability of their learning in my class to their experiences outside it. The essays that follow provide models for achieving and assessing student progress toward these learning goals.

Part 2: Applying Problem-Based Learning, Philip Duker
Part 3: Assessing Problem-Based Learning, Kris Shaffer

This work is copyright ©2014 Daniel Stevens and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.