Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 6

Table of Contents

“Calling Captain Scaffold!” Interactive Handouts to Stimulate Student Learning

Jennifer Shafer


Although the concept of scaffolding is familiar to many, it still lacks a standard definition. Recent literature reviews (van de Pol et al. 2010 and Lin et al. 2011) show that there is still room to better quantify scaffolding and its implications for learning. While the lack of a clear definition complicates operationalization and measurement, reported results are usually positive.

Scaffolding research in music has primarily centered around private lessons and music education. Kupers et al. (2017) and Kupers et al. (2014) report on studying real-time use of scaffolding in private lessons. McPhail (2010) and Jørgensen (2000) also discuss the role of scaffolding in private lessons. Keast (2009) considers scaffolding in the design of online music history courses, and Wiggins and Espeland (2018) present “artful teacher scaffolding” from a music education perspective on creative learning environments.

Scaffolding may already be an unconscious process for many theory instructors. However, deliberate implementation of scaffolding principles can be beneficial in the theory and aural classrooms. Three characteristics of successful scaffolding are frequently mentioned in the literature: contingency (adjusting instructor support based on student needs), fading (gradually removing support), and transfer of responsibility (asking the student to become independent in the task(s)) (van de Pol et al 2010.).

Over the past few years I have developed a slightly different version of scaffolding while creating interactive handouts for core classes. My overarching philosophy is “less is more”; key subsidiary principles are:

  • start at square zero,
  • spiral and circle, and
  • sink-or-swim.

Interactive handouts have become a key part of my teaching, and students regularly cite these as effective and useful. Four handouts will be presented as examples. The content is in some cases idiosyncratic to my institution’s curricular goals, but I have left them largely unaltered in order to present a clearer picture of these principles at work.

Less is more (active engagement over passive intake)

I have often questioned allowing handouts to play a significant role in my teaching, in case they should encourage students to participate passively, or skip class altogether. However, I have found that with careful construction, handouts can encourage active engagement in class and provide students with a personalized reference.

A “less is more” perspective, resembling an outline, encourages active engagement. Since students have an outline in hand I can structure class as an interactive conversation, utilizing a fast-paced question-answer-feedback loop. In the simplest form of this loop, I will pose a question, garner student response(s), and then accept, clarify, and/or correct the answer(s). For instance, when introducing an improvisation activity which requires creation of upper voices within certain harmonic constraints, I will first ask students to identify the three functional harmonic classes (knowing that they will need this information to set up miniature phrase models). At this stage, students usually suggest “tonic” and “dominant,” but not always “predominant”; I can accept their suggestions and add missing classes if necessary before turning to sorting out Roman numerals. I will again ask students how and why we might fill in the blanks and proceed to lead them through sorting the chords, correcting any wrong suggestions as we go. This process could be summarized as follows:

  1. Ask question (instructor or student)
  2. Student(s) propose answer(s)
  3. Evaluate answer(s):
    a. Agree completely
    b. Agree partially and edit, or
    c. Disagree, discuss error(s), and revise.

The cycle is flexible and easily allows for clarifying questions or providing additional information as needed. The pace is easily controlled by asking students to write answers individually or in small groups. Students who need more time to think, or who don’t like to speak up in class, have the chance to work in a meaningful way. Students gain confidence as we progress through the semester, learning that giving wrong answers is OK—even encouraged—since we can then discuss why something is wrong. The question-answer-feedback loop also engages with several different learning modalities: read/write (writing on the handout), aural (discussion loop), and visual (completed handout and the version I simultaneously build on the board). Students tend to take these handouts seriously, tracking through the information and personalizing it (color-coding, highlighting, marginalia, etc.), and retaining handouts to reference later.

Students quickly learn that active participation is a necessity and respond well to the active environment. Students also find that if they miss a class, simply copying notes from another student will be insufficient to understand missed material. Because of the constant active discussion and interaction in class, the “magic words” which fill in the blanks on their paper are not enough to catch up without seeking verbal explanations from their colleague (a wonderful opportunity for peer teaching!) or seeking instructor help in office hours. As a result, these handouts tend to increase student participation in class rather than decrease it. As an added benefit for the instructor, creating these handouts also largely subsumes lesson planning; once I’ve finished writing and revising a given handout, a separate lesson plan is usually superfluous.

Start at square zero (make it easy)

The most effective handouts begin with something painfully simple, but which I would otherwise assume as prior knowledge. The Theory II tonic expansion handout asks students to write solfege and figured bass for diatonic chords, something they should be able to do automatically (similarly, solfege for arpeggiations in Aural II). We start easy for three reasons:

  1. Weaker students get a quick review. Most students usually know the answers, but some students would struggle to keep up otherwise; thus, taking time to start with something easy boosts confidence for these students.
  2. All students have a handy reference guide and will therefore be more confident in the remaining material. The early-onset confidence ploy thus has a watershed effect throughout the class.
  3. Incorrect prior knowledge assumptions on my part are revealed through problems with the question-answer-feedback loop, and I can adjust accordingly.

Of course, “square zero” varies by topic. When presenting the Neapolitan chord, “square zero” (“fundamental requirements”) followed the first musical example. After locating the aurally salient chord within the excerpt, we engaged with a chord that is now “known” in order to catalogue the taxonomic information—again, a confidence boost because although students are dealing with something previously unknown, they can now use a single concrete example to determine the fundamental information.

Spiral and circle (almost the same, but never in the same way)

After establishing basics I build in “spirals” so that students complete a basic exercise multiple times in a short timespan, which emphasizes repetition and increases fluency and confidence. For instance, in the tonic expansion handout I would take time to discuss the first expansion in detail: filling in solfege for the neighboring Do-Ti-Do expansion, using the first page to list possible harmonies for these pitches, and then considering syntax restrictions. The Mi-Fa-Mi expansion would also be discussed as a large group, but more quickly, and then I can gradually shift responsibility onto the students to think through the same process for the remaining expansions (through small-group and individual work, debriefed as a large group).

The question-answer-feedback loop continues to ensure that everyone arrives at the right answers, but my support will continue to fade as students work more independently. Since this handout would be used over several class periods to introduce these expansions, students will also gain from the larger-scale repetition.

These principles are worked out similarly on the other handouts; if interested, the reader may access annotated versions which outline the learning spirals (aural arpeggiation (annotated), Neapolitan (annotated)).

Sink-or-swim (don’t worry, you know how to swim)

If scaffolding is to work properly, I must be able to remove support and transfer responsibility to the students. If students aren’t able to operate outside the safety of filling in blanks on a handout, then there is an unsatisfactory tradeoff between time invested and results achieved. Thus, I always want to reach a point where we are in the proverbial “deep end” and are challenged to sink-or-swim. Obviously, I hope that the result is “swim,” or at least the perception of swimming.

The words “perception of swimming” are key: Even here, work is designed to align with the previous structure, continuing to build confidence while also giving a sense of earned independence. In the Neapolitan handout the closing aural activity sets students up for success in several ways:

  1. Students already experienced aural identification at the beginning and in the preceding progressions.
  2. Examples are posted online for further study as needed.
  3. Students worked in groups and could test theories and share ideas.
  4. Aural identification was immediately supported/corrected by the score representation.

Sink-or-swim does not always present itself in every handout, or at least not at a significant level. The other handouts discussed previously serve as precursors to activities which fall within the sink-or-swim principle: A bassline construction quiz builds on knowledge of tonic expansions, and a quiz/arpeggiation practice guide builds on the figured bass/arpeggiation work.

Especially when creating more substantive assessments, I believe it is important to structure the material so that to completely “sink” is unlikely, preferably by creating assignments that allow the students to demonstrate what they do know, rather than—especially from the student’s perspective—focus on what they don’t. Even if a student shows that they are not yet fully “swimming” on their own, both the student and I should be able to see clearly where remaining knowledge gaps or weak skills lie, and we can then target these issues to demonstrate mastery in future assessments. In a sense, then, we begin to move towards a meta-level of scaffolding as the student and instructor both have a new vision for proper placement of square zero, and which skills need to be practiced further (spirals). Systems such as standards-based grading, focusing on concept mastery and allowing multiple attempts at assessment, are particularly useful for this type of approach. (Duker et al. (2015) explains this system and presents examples in a music theory context.) Students get a clear picture of which components were successful and which were not, and they can target their future work towards mastering specific concepts. As an instructor, I also benefit by seeing the detailed grading information across the cohort and adjusting future classes accordingly.

To scaffold or not to scaffold?

To be clear: I don’t believe that scaffolding should be used exclusively. If I am training students as musicians, that includes training them as independent learners. Anyone who uses scaffolding must also consciously give students the opportunity to show mastery when dealing with unfamiliar territory, such as a project or question that is not approached via direct scaffolding, or approaching content that is slightly outside of their current comfort zone.

In my case, carefully scaffolded in-class work and homework assignments build up to comprehensive projects, where I give students little to no scaffolding. For instance, composition projects give students a chance to apply concepts in a creative context. Analysis of pieces from their repertoire will often present students with at least some material not yet taught in class, and thus give them the opportunity to demonstrate that they have mastered both the current content and the thinking skills that can allow them to extend their known content to an explanation of the unknown. For example, first-semester students who have learned the characteristics of a V7-I resolution can often extrapolate this information to correctly identify secondary dominants, without having learned this material previously.

To ensure that students do not become overly dependent on handouts or other scaffolding aids, additional projects can require students to consciously think through these steps for themselves (such as creating their own handouts, writing a lesson plan, or writing analytical prose). I plan to experiment further with these types of strategies in coming years.


Careful construction of scaffolded, interactive handouts can be an incredibly effective technique, typically received well by students of different ages and across different majors and ability levels, as evidenced by anonymous evaluations, word-of-mouth, and effort to keep and organize handouts. Students seem to understand the handouts better when they have a hand in their creation, instead of an object that—however perfect it may be—is passively received. The design combines lesson planning, in-class activities, and guided student note-taking, as well as providing an avenue to familiarize students with formatting for quizzes or other assessments; student use of handouts could also be tracked as a formative assessment, especially for first-year students (an idea that I have not yet implemented).

Although frequent use of structured handouts can risk becoming too prescriptive, it can also help students organize their own learning, develop conscious and careful modes of thought, and achieve a level of independence that often surprises and elates the students themselves.


Duker, Philip, Anna Gawboy, Bryn Hughes, and Kris P. Shaffer. 2015. “Hacking the Music Theory Classroom: Standards-Based Grading, Just-in-Time Teaching, and the Inverted Class.Music Theory Online 21 (2).

The Iris Center. 2018. “Page 1: What is Instructional Scaffolding?” Accessed July 11, 2018. https://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/module/sca/cresource/q1/p01/#content

Jørgensen, Harald. 2000. "Student Learning in Higher Instrumental Education: Who is Responsible?" British Journal of Music Education 17 (1): 67-77.

Keast, Dan A. 2009. "A Constructivist Application for Online Learning in Music." Research & Issues in Music Education 7 (1): Article 8.

Küpers, Elisa, Marijn van Dijk, and Paul Van Geert. 2014. “‘Look Closely at What I’m Doing!’ Scaffolding in Individual String Lessons: Two Case Studies.International Journal of Music Education 32 (3): 375-391.

———. 2017. “Changing Patterns of Scaffolding and Autonomy During Individual Music Lessons: A Mixed Methods Approach.Journal of the Learning Sciences 26 (1): 131-166.

Lin, Tzu-chiang, Ying-shao Hsu, Shu-sheng Lin, Maio-Li Changlai, Kun-Yuan Yang, and Ting-ling Lai. 2011. “A Review of Empirical Evidence on Scaffolding for Science Education.International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education 10 (2): 437-455.

McPhail, Graham J. 2010. "Crossing boundaries: Sharing Concepts of Music Teaching from Classroom to Studio." Music Education Research 12 (1): 33-45.

van de Pol, Janneke, Monique Volman, and Jos Beishuizen. 2010. “Scaffolding in Teacher-Student Interaction: A Decade of Research.Educational Psychology Review 22 (3): 271-96.

Wiggins, Jackie and Magne I. Espeland. 2018. “Creating in Music Learning Contexts.” In Music Learning and Teaching in Infancy, Childhood, and Adolescence: An Oxford Handbook of Music Education, Vol. 2, edited by Gary E. McPherson and Graham F. Welch, 121-140. New York: Oxford University Press.

This work is copyright ⓒ2018 Jennifer Shafer and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.