Putting Formative Assessment to Use: Student-Led Mini-Presentations

Have you ever tried to explain the concept of musical timbre? How about describing the exact differences between an “important” versus a “secondary” melody? In dry, textbook terms, sure, my Intro to Music class can do this. But once our attention shifts from abstract concepts to real musical examples, the definitions provided in the textbook no longer seem so helpful. This is one of the difficulties I’ve struggled with in teaching the “music fundamentals” unit that serves as a prerequisite to the history-focused remainder of my course. Despite our scholarly conceit that we can define and classify this art, experience shows that our theories are imperfect, and musical works (or rather, musicians) consistently break our rules and muddy our once-clear understandings. Having fluency in music-speak requires flexibility, and having flexibility requires a solid understanding of concepts.

Last week, after wrapping up the fundamentals unit, my class was tasked with moving beyond the textbook. The classroom experiment that followed was a result of a formative assessment activity devised by my dedicated colleagues in our Mapping the Futures of Higher Education class. The initial step was simple: Have students complete a short (anonymous, if you wish) survey in which they assess their understanding of class concepts, reflect on which topic(s) they feel least grounded in, and express what they would like to see more of in the class. In short: what is working for you so far and what isn’t, and what can I (as the teacher) do about it?

As an instructor, I like to think that I foster an open environment conducive to questioning and admissions of confusion, but this survey was invaluable for me in my own self-assessment. Asking my students these pointed questions, and—perhaps most importantly—allowing time for personal reflection, provided me with a fuller and more nuanced understanding of my students’ current standing than I could get from observation alone. I was surprised to learn that many found in-class group work an effective way to learn (aren’t students supposed to hate that?), and expressed a desire for more musical examples. There was also a remarkable level of consistency in the topics my students wanted to review before we moved on in the course.

So, after mining these surveys for information, how was I to make use of this end-of-the-unit assessment? One thing was immediately apparent: I needed to be flexible with the class schedule, and Unit Two would have to wait. Luckily, my students made things easy for me. I decided to heed their call for group work, and asked everyone to sign up for one of four topics that they would present to their peers in the following class: Major and Minor Scales; Duple and Triple Meter; Musical Texture; and Pitch, Dynamics, and Timbre. Students evenly distributed themselves among the topics (again, making my job easy), and got to work on their mini-presentations. The parameters were simple: 1) Explain and elaborate on the concept in your own words (i.e. move away from a reliance on the text); 2) Use the board—create visual representations, mind maps connecting concepts, and write down important terms; and 3) use musical examples. As I moved between groups asking guiding questions, I was humbled by my students’ ideas and insights. I had asked them to become the masters of the material and be prepared to field questions from their peers, and they were stepping up to the task.

In lieu of a play-by-play, I’d like to share some of my favourite moments from the students’ mini-presentations last Thursday. The group responsible for Major and Minor Scales created a wonderful mind map that clearly organized all of the important terms associated with this topic. Some students even took pictures of their organizational masterpiece for future review. The group responsible for Pitch, Dynamics, and Timbre created a great visual representation of sound waves within a one-second time span in order to explain the difference between higher and lower musical pitches. As they drove their point home by playing the highest and lowest keys on the piano, I made a mental note to use their visual in my future teaching—they did a better job explaining the concept than I ever did, and I owe them one. The group focusing on Meter led their peers in a rhythmic deconstruction of a Taylor Swift song, stomping on the main beats and clapping the subdivisions. The students clearly trusted their musical intuitions (something many have mistakenly been taught to question) more readily with songs they felt connected to. The Musical Texture group—after walking us through a great metaphor that involved drawings of pizza on the board—had one student play three versions of the infamous Pachelbel’s canon to illustrate different types of musical textures: an individual melody, a melody plus subordinate harmonization, and a melody in counterpoint with another melody they had synced up from YouTube. Needless to say, this effective presentation received a rousing round of applause from the class.

To wrap this post up, some concluding thoughts on the effectiveness of the formative assessment exercise: by taking the time to allow for thoughtful feedback from students, I was able to reformulate my course for the better. My students kindly provided suggestions that, when put into practice, necessitated some extra but ultimately invaluable sessions dedicated to reviewing and consolidating material, resulting in perhaps one of the most lively and fun classes I’ve facilitated. Being flexible in the classroom in order to allow for these kinds of activities isn’t always easy. The clock and the syllabus always loom large. But the alternative would have been moving forward on uncertain ground, and undoubtedly running into misunderstandings in the future. The topics my students so masterfully presented to their classmates, and the questions they expertly fielded will continue to serve us as we move onto music of the Middle Ages on decidedly more solid ground.