Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 3

Table of Contents

Engaging Students as Disciplinary Practitioners in an Introductory Theory Course

Anna Ferenc, Wilfrid Laurier University

While the content of an introductory undergraduate course in music theory may be considered basic, instructing such a course is a challenging pedagogical endeavor, especially when the course is part of a core grouping of courses required for degree completion, as it often is. In these courses, students are to acquire a degree of music literacy deemed foundational for all areas of music sub-specialization at least in the Western tradition. To achieve this goal, students must retain and integrate information cumulatively not only within individual courses, but also transfer learning when progressing from one core course to the next. Moreover, it is expected that students will apply their acquired literacy and critical thinking skills to areas of professional development outside of the theory core.

As reported in educational research (e.g. Zoller 1993), application of knowledge, critical thinking, and evaluating information for purposes of integration or creation are higher-order cognitive skills that are difficult to develop in course settings such as those typically encountered in the introductory undergraduate study of music theory and in most other introductory courses at the post-secondary level, which deliver instruction through lectures and practice exercises. Lectures, whether in class or online, and practice exercises can facilitate lower-order memorization and recall, but do not foster an environment that provokes the kind of deep-level processing required to activate higher-order cognitive skills and engage students in meaningful learning. In lecture settings, students grow accustomed to passive receptivity of knowledge and consequently lack training in what it means to take responsibility for their learning of the subject matter being studied. Working within the lecture environment, attempts to engage students or motivate learning in introductory theory courses have usually involved revision of course content to address relevance for classes of diverse student populations. Thoughtful recommendations regarding concepts to cover, repertoire to include, technology to use, depth or breadth to achieve, and how to teach subject matter abound in publications on music theory pedagogy including contributions to the first and second volumes of Engaging Students. By the same token, the existence of these publications illustrates an ongoing concern with what is commonly described as student engagement with subject matter or motivation to learn in required music theory courses.

By contrast, it is useful to recognize that there are areas of music study where engagement and motivation are routinely high, such as in studio, ensemble, or composition courses. It may be self-evident but, nevertheless, noteworthy to observe that in these courses students participate as disciplinary practitioners even as they learn the basics. For example, in studio or ensemble courses, students participate as aspiring performers while they learn about performance and prepare for juries and recitals. Or, in composition courses, students participate as aspiring composers while they learn about composition and compile portfolios of musical work. In these courses, students demonstrate, among other things, their ability to retain and integrate information, to apply knowledge and skills critically and creatively in new musical contexts, and to take responsibility for their learning. While acknowledging that student engagement and motivation is undoubtedly facilitated in such courses by individual or small group instruction, this observation has nevertheless prompted me to consider how students in classroom or lecture-hall environments of introductory theory courses may be engaged as disciplinary practitioners and what effect this might have on their learning.

To this end, I have designed and monitored the effectiveness of projects that simulate real-world tasks performed by theorists and have implemented them into a sophomore-level music theory course.

The projects draw on learning-centered, writing-focussed, and reflective approaches to teaching (e.g., Elbow 1973; Emig 1977; Moon 2000; Bean 2001; King 2002; Bain 2004) to complete a simulated professional activity that explores a selected course topic. Students work in writer-reviewer partnerships and change roles from one project to the next so that they are exposed to both writer and reviewer learning experiences. The projects are not intended to replace, but rather to supplement classroom instruction and formative exercises. Likewise, their evaluation supplements assessment by quizzes and examinations. Class time is not allotted for project completion, but students are assigned readings and exercises on the project topic, which are then reviewed and practiced with their participation in class before a project is begun. In my experience, including two projects within a semester-length course is both effective and manageable. Each one is completed within about a two-week period. For optimal results, the first should be assessed and feedback provided to students before the second is begun.

In one such project, an author and editor partnership produces a concise essay of approximately 500 words illustrated with specific music examples on the topic of modulation to closely related tonalities for possible publication in a music theory handbook that could be used by music majors at a sophomore level for reference or review purposes. Participants are thereby engaged in an activity that could be encountered in the professional world of a music theorist and that produces a product of relevance for an audience to which they belong. To succeed at this undergraduate level, the project is carefully scaffolded with detailed instructions on content and procedural requirements for completion of its various components which include: an original version of an essay illustrated with two music examples prepared independently by the student author; a review report prepared by the peer editor that presents and compares alternative music example possibilities and engages with substantive issues in the essay; subsequent collaboration to reach consensus on a final revised essay to submit for publication; and independent reflections by the author and the editor on the project experience. All project work including the formative pieces, the final product, and reflections are submitted for assessment according to a rubric disclosed at the outset. More detailed information about this particular project, along with a reproduction of its instructions and rubric, an evaluation of its effectiveness, and recommendations for implementation, is available here.

The results of such projects have been both pedagogically rewarding and instructive. An immediately noticeable feature of completed projects submitted for assessment is a much improved quality of work from the first to the final revised version of the essay. In the case of the project outlined above, for example, it would be reasonable for an instructor to be apprehensive about the quality of essays produced considering that they are the first attempts at a theory essay completed by students within the first few weeks of their second year of study. However, the peer review and collaborative learning components of the project identify and correct many errors in first versions of essays without any instructor input. I have learned that, even if students are not good writers, they can be excellent editors because they readily recognize lack of clarity in someone else’s work if not their own and it is important for them to be understood by their peers. The projects also provide a broader perspective from which student achievement may be assessed as they present a more authentic basis upon which to evaluate concept mastery in comparison with conventional problem-solving exercises or tests. Most noteworthy is evidence of meaningful learning experiences described in reflections by project authors and editors as sampled below. A comprehensive listing and analysis of reflections is available here.

I think that the most valuable part of this assignment was the opportunity to explore the topic of modulation independently and in much more depth than usual for theory classes. Having to research and learn something independently fostered a completely different understanding of the material, as it was not just handed down to me by a professor. … I feel that I will actually remember what I learned! [Project Author]

To me, gaining a thorough understanding of the concepts of modulation, tonicization and closely related tonalities over the course of this project was incredibly valuable as a music student. I feel that this information has helped me to better comprehend the music that I am listening to, studying and performing. [Project Editor]

It is noteworthy to observe that, despite learning about modulation in class preceding the start of the project, students document substantially enhanced engagement with subject matter when involved as disciplinary practitioners. Comments on meta-learning and transfer of learning to professional development beyond the course provide evidence of engagement with metacognition, which is considered essential to successful learning (e.g. Gourgey 1998) and in turn explains why students document meaningful learning experiences.

Equally revelatory comments continue to surface when students switch roles in their next project and the switching of roles can further enhance and build upon learning experiences in the first project. For example, witness the following representative comments from student reflections on a second project, which is designed in the same manner as the one on modulation outlined above, but instructs the author-editor partnership to produce a concise essay of approximately 700 words on the topic of binary form for possible publication in a music theory textbook intended again for music majors at the sophomore level. The essay must be illustrated by a repertoire example and draw on at least one publication for source material researched independently by authors and editors to supplement information in course texts and class discussions.

Just by writing this article, I was able to fully understand the concepts and structure of binary form… Before I even started writing my first draft, I read and read for 3 days. I went over my [textbooks] and consulted with my sister (a pianist) as we shared our understanding of binary form. This sparked great debates as some of the vocabulary that I use differs from what she is used to. Then, discussing binary form with my editor allowed me to learn even more, we had different understandings on certain aspects of binary form so our discussion was very helpful in the sense that we were able to come to a conclusion together. The process of writing this paper was actually enjoyable for me and highly educational. [Project Author]

This [project] helped me get a better understanding of binary form that is now more ingrained in my memory than it ever was before (this is surprisingly a great study tool) … I am really glad we were able to switch roles. You learn a lot from both positions and you take it all away for future reference. [Project Editor]

Having completed the assignment, I now have a much better idea [of] what form is. But this experience begs the question: how often do I really think about what I’m learning? Had I asked myself any questions about form in a larger context, I would no doubt have realized that I didn’t know how to define it. But I never asked myself those questions; instead, I mechanically memorized how to construct and identify specific types of form, falling into the trap of learning enough to pass the midterm, but not really understanding the material. So I have learned that it really is quite necessary to ask questions while learning to make sure that you actually understand the material (in a way that might be useful later in life) and aren’t just memorizing facts to pass a test. [Project Editor]

These candid, perceptive, and revealing testimonials show that involving students in structured activities as disciplinary practitioners to learn the basics of music theory at an undergraduate level motivates them not only to engage deeply with subject matter, but also with their own learning, which leads to transformative and deep learning experiences of potentially lasting influence. In this way, integrated retention and critical application of learning may be achieved, and transfer of learning may be activated in introductory-level theory courses, which meets the challenge of their broader pedagogical purpose.