Introduction to Music: An Experiment in Student-Centered Learning

When my program chair emailed the Musicology students about the Mapping the Futures of Higher Education course offered at the CUNY Graduate Center in Spring 2015, I was intrigued. She encouraged anyone who was interested in the twin issues of pedagogy and the institutional structures of public higher education in the U.S. to apply for one of the twelve spots in the class. The class was an experimental course co-taught by Cathy Davidson of the Futures Initiative and former Graduate Center president William Kelly. It focused on student-centered pedagogy, digital humanities, cross-disciplinary collaborative learning, and public writing, with an eye towards addressing innovation and equity in public education. Twelve graduate students teaching a range of courses and representing diverse disciplines would discuss, debate, and implement student-centered learning techniques into their classes each week, and share their experiences in online, public posts. The class also aimed to foster discussion amongst the undergraduate students enrolled in these classes, incorporating their voices via a sophisticated digital platform run by the Futures Initiative team.

I was interested in the content of the course, curious about its experimental nature, and excited by the prospect of addressing some of the concerns I had as a new instructor. I wanted to talk about the benefits and challenges of peer-centered learning with those equally dedicated to this approach. I wanted to learn about the emerging field of the digital humanities and the world of open access resources. Ultimately, I wanted to better understand what I, as an adjunct instructor, could possibly do in my single classroom to begin to address some of the deep structural problems public higher education faces in the United States.

This past semester I taught 27 students at the City College of New York in an “Introduction to Music” class. The class touches on Western music history from the Middle Ages up to the 20thC, with a focus on both the aesthetics and the social functions of music. As a class designed for non-majors, many of my students take this course to fulfill their required “creative arts” elective. Because this class serves as an elective for most students, I try to adapt some of the learning goals so that they may serve students more broadly during their university careers. The following blog summarizes several ways in which the pedagogical approaches discussed in the Mapping the Futures course informed my teaching this semester. In particular, I focus on the ways in which in-class student presentations, student-led review sessions, online (public) writing, and embodied, participatory learning worked towards the broader goals of giving students a voice inside and outside the classroom, instilling a sense of responsibility over and pride in their work and their learning, and encouraging student persistence.

I attempted to wrap up several student-centered learning strategies with in-class group activities this semester. Emphasizing (explicitly and implicitly) the benefits of formative assessment—regularly “checking in” with students’ learning and encouraging them to do the same—was key, as was fostering conversations in which students could work in teams, with pre-assigned roles, to collaborate effectively and better understand and articulate concepts. Group work was always presented to the class, so as to open up the floor for constructive critique and greater understanding for all in the room. I blogged in more detail about these activities earlier this semester, and the play-by-plays can be found here and here.

The students in Intro to Music also partook in conversations outside the classroom, regularly contributing to prompts on our own class website that lived with the larger Mapping the Futures site. As an example, one class was spent reading, evaluating, and “marking” sample concert reviews in groups–one step in the final collaborative project in which students would write their own reviews of concerts they attended at CUNY campuses. Students then reflected on our class discussions, summarizing what they felt made an effective review, what should be avoided, and how they would like to approach the topic in their own writing in order to clearly communicate their experiences. You can find their insights here. The final collaborative project—a map that shows the students’ concert locations and links to their reviews—highlights their diverse approaches to this material. You can take a look at that here.

Perhaps the most unorthodox teaching and learning approach was the Intro to Music class’ experiment with meditative, embodied listening. I’ve recapped the class here, but I believe the most rewarding aspect of this activity was the feedback the students provided, both in class and in the comment section of the recap blog post. The class felt confident in voicing their positions on whether or not such activities belonged in the classroom, and thoughtfully articulated ideas about learning styles and test-taking strategies.

The trajectory and outcome of this final activity in particular encapsulated (for me) so much of what I aim to do in my classroom (and what my experience in the Mapping the Futures class enabled and encouraged me to do). A new approach to learning was attempted. It’s benefits and complications were openly discussed, with students voicing their opinions and concerns and actively taking a role in their learning, finding what works for them and what might work. They reflected on their own performance in the class, and felt confident enough to admit that they might need to spend more time on certain concepts. And they carried on this conversation outside the classroom, making connections between this particular experience and their broader learning habits. This is the kind of classroom environment I aim to foster, the kind of classroom environment that I want to take part in as a student myself, and, I believe, the kind of approach to learning that seeks to develop active, engaged, and invested citizens.


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309