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Active-Learning in the Music Education and Music Therapy Classroom—Abbey Dvorak (2014)

Overview

A professor transforms a largely lecture-based music education and music therapy class into an active learning experience, incorporating daily, interactive in-class activities that allow students the opportunity to practice the skills and concepts they are learning.

Background

Psychology of Music (MEMT 455) focuses on the physical, psychological, and social aspects of music and its influence on human behavior. When I taught this course in the past, I spent a considerable amount of class time lecturing. Not only was it rather tedious for students, it did not allow them to practice the skills they would need to do well in the final project. In the fall of 2014, I brought an interactive component into the class time, providing activities that allowed students to work with peers, discuss their projects with one another, work on their projects in steps, and ask me questions while they worked. These experiences provided an opportunity to practice higher-order thinking skills, such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

Implementation

The main shift I brought to my teaching is shaped by the question: How am I going to get students to engage with this material, learn, and then demonstrate their learning? I reshaped my course to include frequent in-class, interactive activities designed to encourage students to engage in the course material in a unique way, equip students with essential skills needed for their profession, and allow them to practice these tasks in a supportive environment. This involved taking key pieces from the readings, adding additional material and resources, and developing the course concepts further through hands-on experiences.

In order to assess overall learning, I assigned students individual research projects that focused on a specific aspect of music psychology. The project included a CITI human subjects certification, a research proposal with appropriate resources, a completed quantitative research project with at least 30 participants, a rough and final draft of a research paper, a research poster, and an oral research poster presentation. I scaffolded the steps of the individual research project so students could complete smaller, more manageable assignments during class.

Student Work

I was really impressed, for the most part, with the level of work from the students since the change in course structure. Students showed signs of deeper insight and understanding of concepts and the research process. In contrast to previous semesters, all of the key pieces of their projects were present and complete, perhaps because we had broken the assignment down throughout the semester; they had check-sheets and peer reviews providing feedback at every step along the way. I was also impressed with the research posters and oral presentations. Students highlighted key information and were very articulate in talking about their project in an understandable manner. The poster presentations demonstrated students’ abilities to create visually clear and aesthetically professional products, as well as their ability to speak succinctly and clearly about their larger research projects to people with varying degrees of understanding about their topic.

Reflections

By the end of teaching MEMT 455 in the fall of 2014, I really experienced, firsthand, the importance of student engagement. Revamping this class seemed to help students encode, store, and retrieve information in a more efficient manner than in my previous, lecture-heavy classes. In the fall of 2014, my students had the opportunity to actually engage with new information: they worked with it, talked with other people about it, and allowed the material to become a part of their base of knowledge. Therefore, they are much more likely to actually use it in their professional lives. It was interesting to find that I also enjoyed teaching more using this new model. Since I originally revamped this class in the fall of 2014, I am making similar changes in how I approach course material in my other classes as well.


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Background

Psychology of Music (MEMT 455) is an upper-level course for Music Education and Music Therapy majors. Students must have admission to the Music Education or Music Therapy Professional Sequence before enrolling. In addition, they need to have completed three prerequisites: MEMT 366, MEMT 367, and MEMT 420. In the fall of 2014, I had 33 students enrolled in this course, which is a typical size for this class. We met three times a week for 50-minute class periods. This course focuses on the physical, psychological, and social aspects of music and its influence on human behavior. Over the course of the semester, students study musical sound perception, cognition, response, reproduction, creation, and room acoustics.

The syllabus states that by the end of the course, students will be able to:

  1. Synthesize knowledge regarding the physical, psychological, and social processes involved with music perception and cognition.
  2. Demonstrate professional skills in research evaluation, facilitation, and communication.

In addition to the music psychology material, this class also serves as a research course. Because this is the only research class offered to many of the students, learning how to gather and reflect on research becomes an even more critical component in the course design. Throughout the semester we are building toward a final project in which students are required to go out and perform a quantitative research study. This research component works well with the learning goals of the course, as students are able to better understand the influence of music as they go out and perform hands-on research.

When I taught this course in the past, I spent a considerable amount of class time lecturing. I would assign students a chapter from the textbook and a quiz to ensure they did the reading. I would then spend the bulk of the period essentially lecturing over their reading assignment. Not only was it rather tedious for students, it did not allow them to practice the skills they would need to do well in the final project. While I was already scaffolding the final assignment into a proposal and rough draft that culminated in the final research project, I did not spend class time modeling or allowing students to practice the skills they would need to fully succeed.

Students would get results from their research but have no idea what to do with it or how to make meaning out of the data. They would simply report their results with minimal information in their discussion section. The projects were acceptable, but I knew they would be considerably better if I could help students actively engage and practice critical thinking skills needed for research. I realized I needed to teach this complicated process in a more tangible, accessible, and practical manner. In addition, I wanted to help students apply this research to their own lives and help them share the information they found with other people.


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Implementation

In the fall of 2014, I brought an interactive component into the class time, providing activities that allowed students to work with peers, discuss their project with one another, work on their projects in steps, and ask me more questions while they worked. These experiences equipped students with essential skills needed for their profession and provided a supportive environment to practice higher-order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

The course redesign involved taking key pieces from the readings, adding additional material and resources, and developing course concepts further through hands-on experiences. I would connect the readings to these experiences, demonstrate the skills or expectations, and provide opportunities for students to practice in class. I went from a brief and general course schedule to a very well-defined one that described in detail what I was going to be doing in the class as well as what the students would be responsible for doing each day.

The following is a list of some of the interactive, experiential activities I brought into my MEMT 455 class in the fall of 2014:

VoiceThread:
VoiceThread is an interactive web-based tool that allows participants to collaborate, share, and comment using videos, images, texts, and audio files. It was a frequent point of discussion in different CTE workshops I attended, and it seemed like a helpful tool that aligned with some of the changes I was making in my class. I decided to use VoiceThread as a mode of introduction at the start of the semester. I opened with a brief, two-and-a-half minute video giving some background on myself and the class. I then asked them to comment on VoiceThread, either by doing a video themselves, adding written comments, or leaving audio. I asked them to provide their name, year or field, major instrument, something unique about themselves, and what they were looking to get out of the class. They all responded to my video by dropping their files around my original video. Students not only listened and responded to my introduction, they had the chance to view peer introductions as well and get to know other students in the class.

I think these VoiceThread introductions changed the dynamic in the classroom. Although both professions use music, Music Education and Music Therapy students may have a difficult time working together because they have such distinct focus areas and use music differently. VoiceThread was my approach to getting students who were working in different fields and who had not had many classes together to build a bridge over that gap from the first day of class. This became even more important for me as I redesigned the class to engage heavily with interactive learning experiences. I needed to emphasize this communication and collaboration component early. I also found these introductions useful for myself. I had an easier time pairing students for in-class collaborative work with the information they provided, and I could bring it up in conversation to demonstrate to them that I care about them as individual students, I am paying attention, and I really want to know more.

Literature Map:
Early in the semester, we began discussing topics of interest and research questions. I wanted students to be able to contextualize their own ideas within a body of research, so after students looked at some of the literature, I assigned them to bring to class a literature map. This document served as a visual representation of the topics that led to their research questions. They designed these maps using any visual method that made sense to them, including a variety of shapes and colors. Once in class, each student had to talk through their map with their peers, and their peers had to write one or two response comments on the map. This allowed students the opportunity to place their own topics in a larger discourse as well as receive feedback from their peers.

Theory Script:
When we began discussing the use of theory to guide research, I replaced my standard lecture on independent and dependent variables with an in-class activity that allowed students to practice using theory through a guided template. One of our class texts, J.W. Creswell’s Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods, includes a script that begins: “The theory that I will use is____________. It was developed by _______________....” First, I provided examples and demonstrated how to fill in the complete template. Then I had them fill in the entire script for their own study while the GTA and I walked around the classroom answering questions. Using this simple template during class allowed students a low-stakes opportunity to practice using appropriate vocabulary within a suitable format. It required they identify variables, a theory that best explained the influence of these variables on each other, and a rationale as to why this chosen theory would hold for their specific study. Using theory in a paper tends to be challenging for students, with students not including theory at all or including a theory that does not connect with the variables or their research question. Usually they will state their hypothesis, and then set out to test it. I wanted them to delve into the research base for their topic and think more critically about why they thought A would to lead to B. These templates showed them how to begin incorporating theory into their own research.

Debate:
Some of our course material engaged controversial questions in music psychology, such as “Is music necessary for survival?” Last year, I lectured on this and students were only minimally engaged. I realized this is a riveting subject about beauty, survival, and why our brains respond to music in such a unique way, so I wanted to design an activity that would make this relevant and important to students.

The debate involves a pro-role, an anti-role, a devil’s advocate, and a judge. For example, the pro-role groups argued that music is necessary for survival because of one of the assigned areas (i.e. natural landscapes, unique way of knowing, social organization, acquisition of language, or parent-infant bonding), whereas the anti-role groups argued that music was or is not necessary for survival in their assigned area. All students were required to speak in their group during the debate and include research outside of their textbook that supported their side. The devil’s advocate group asked contentious questions in order to provoke debate and test the strength of opposing arguments, while the judge group was required to decide who won the argument. Each group had two minutes for their argument, and we arranged the room so the opposing sides were facing each other.

This activity required that students think critically about their topics, begin the research process by finding appropriate resources to support their side of the debate, and practice articulating clearly and succinctly their arguments regarding the importance of music. This activity mirrors what they may experience in the professional world where people may judge and challenge their views of music, their profession, or the benefits of their work. Students commented that at first it was difficult to construct an argument, especially one they may disagree with, but they realized that by knowing the other side of the argument, they could better craft an appropriate response for their beliefs for use later in their professional lives. In addition, students brought in a multitude of research focused on these key areas that would be impossible for me to cover in a 50-minute class.

Student Proposal Conferences:
In previous years, students submitted research proposals to me. I provided written feedback and returned their papers in class. They would then complete their project. However, sometimes students did not understand my written feedback, did not want to meet to discuss it, or would forget about it. In the fall of 2014, I had them set up individual 15-minute meetings with me. In response to a very specific prompt students brought in their research proposals. As we talked through their work, I referenced the rubric so they could see what I was looking for, how I was grading, and what they needed to do moving forward. This facilitated a back-and-forth dialogue and allowed them the opportunity to ask any questions. If they were confused, I could see it on their faces, and I could reword my feedback in a way that made more sense. I could also make sure the research project would work within the constraints of the class and make sure students were ready for the next step of the project.

Other activities, collaborative tasks, and guided worksheets I used to create interactive learning experiences over the course of the semester include:

Assessment:
The course included both breadth and depth of material. The readings and in-class activities allowed students to experience an overview of many different topics related to psychology of music, while the final research project (described in detail below) permitted students to focus on a specific area of interest within music psychology in order to learn and practice functional research skills. I applied two different assessment methods when evaluating the breadth and depth of student learning.

Daily Quizzes:
To assess learning over the breadth of music psychology material, I used Blackboard quizzes that students completed as they read the assigned homework for class. The quizzes gave credit to students for completing their homework, ensured that students understood key terms and concepts, and allowed for a deeper and richer understanding of the in-class experiential activities. The quizzes were five points each and due before class. The quiz included 10 multiple choice, short answer, or fill-in-the-blank questions with a variety of recall, application, and analysis questions. Students had two chances to take the quiz, and could use the quiz as a learning tool in a variety of ways. For example, some students used the quiz as a reading comprehension post-test to evaluate their understanding of the material after they read, and others completed the quiz while they read the chapter to help guide their understanding of the material. No time limits allowed for universal design of the course; students who typically needed more time to complete tests or assignments did not require specific accommodations in order to be successful.

Final Research Project:
In order to assess overall learning, I assigned students individual research projects that focused on a specific aspect of music psychology, and I scaffolded the steps of the project so students could complete smaller, more manageable assignments during class. The project included the CITI human subjects certification, a research proposal with appropriate resources, a completed quantitative research project with at least 30 participants, a rough and final draft of the research paper, a research poster, and an oral research poster presentation. While I assessed each portion of the project, the research paper was the main part of this semester-long project. I used a rubric to assess evidence of student learning in these papers. The research projects, in all of their cumulative parts, became the biggest form of assessment of student learning over the course of the semester.

One of the goals of this assignment was to connect the research requirement of MEMT 455 with the psychology of music material. In addition to that, I wanted students to practice multisensory modes of communication. Their final projects included three parts, the written, verbal, and visual. They received practice and guidance in each step, including multiple peer reviews and feedback from me. I wanted my students to learn the skill of writing in a way that clearly communicated their knowledge about and research on a certain subject. In other words, could students take the data they collected, analyze and think critically about it, and then talk articulately about it in a way their peers can understand? At the same time, the poster presentations also required students to demonstrate their knowledge visually and verbally. As teachers and therapists, we are continually in the process of researching, analyzing, thinking critically about our findings, and developing clear, compelling, and efficient ways to communicate our knowledge. These assignments emphasized the importance of these skills and allowed students to practice the process of making informed choices that are best for the students or the clients.

Final Processing Questions:
Instead of giving a final exam, I provided my students with a list of questions that invoked the material we covered over the course of the semester. I did not have students study for these questions, and I did not grade their answers. Instead, I wanted to provide an opportunity for students to authentically represent to themselves and to me all that they retained over the course of the semester. Students were allowed to write about the ideas that struck them over the semester, and their responses provided me with a picture of what they learned and retained by the end of the semester.


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Student Performance

I was really impressed, for the most part, with the level of work that I got from the students this semester. Students showed signs of deeper understanding of certain concepts. For example, this semester, everybody included some type of theoretical framework with their projects, which were absent from some projects in previous classes. In addition, there were clear purpose statements and research questions in their projects. In previous semesters, students would sometimes forget certain aspects of the research project; for example, they might forget a particular requirement in the methods section. This semester, however, all of the key pieces were present, and I think this is because we had broken the assignment down throughout the course of the semester; they had check-sheets and peer-review providing feedback at every step along the way. A few students struggled with attendance or did not complete the step-by-step assignments. Their projects were missing essential pieces of information that ultimately impacted their grade.

I was also impressed with the research posters and presentations. Students highlighted the material and were very articulate in talking about their project in an understandable manner. Students this semester were well prepared and particularly professional, and I really think this is because their thinking was different. They were thinking like researchers. In previous classes, my students were thinking more like students, or teachers, or therapists. The poster presentations showed students’ abilities to create visually clear and aesthetically professional products, as well as their ability to speak succinctly and clearly about their larger research projects to people with varying degrees of understanding.


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Professor Dvorak

Abbey Dvorak

Reflections

I was prompted to go to BPI in the summer of 2014 because I received some student feedback about my classes being too heavily reliant on lecture and lacking in student engagement. Looking back, I realized the ineffectiveness of the lecture model. I was trying to share all of this information with my students but have since learned that there are better ways to go about it. By the end of teaching MEMT 455 in the fall of 2014, I really experienced, firsthand, the importance of student engagement. People tell you it is important, but until you come to see this for yourself, it is difficult to fully understand. One of the first results that I saw of designing class time around experiential learning activities was student enthusiasm. The contrast between student investment last semester versus this semester was striking. Early in the semester, I already had students coming to my office excited to talk about their research ideas. Revamping this class seemed to help students encode, store, and retrieve information in a more efficient manner than in my previous, lecture-heavy classes. My students this semester had the opportunity to actually engage new information: they worked with it and talked with other people about it. Therefore, they are much more likely to actually use it in their professional lives.

It was interesting to find that I also enjoyed teaching more using this new model. Since I originally revamped this class in the fall of 2014, I made similar changes in how I approach course material in my other classes as well. I am adding more experiential activities, which has encouraged much more student engagement and participation. I also try to divide the class time into smaller pieces. Sometimes I have them write things, or figure out a specific task, or look at an ethical dilemma. Sometimes I have them look at a problem, solve it, and then present their solution to the group. It is very structured, but in a way that remains open for them to talk about it with their peers and then come back to their discussion.

This approach takes a lot of the pressure off of me to be and do everything from my lecture at the front of the room, which is less effective anyway. Even if students glean some knowledge from a lecture, I have learned that students learn best when they work through information and come to an understanding on their own. I have seen that even the typically strong students will remain relatively unengaged if you do not create a comfortable space for participation and set up the class with different experiential activities. At the same time, I want to emphasize that the point is not just activity, and students talking with each other, just for the sake of it. There is always a very specific goal in mind, and it is not just to stop lecturing.

One of the difficulties of teaching this course was that, even by the end of the semester, I still had a few students who were resistant to the idea of working in groups and would have preferred lectures to engaging in the activities. Because music therapists and music educators have to go out and work with people so frequently, however, one of my major goals for my students is to prepare them for that. Thinking ahead to future classes, I might start the semester by pointing to a research study that looks at the percentages of how much students retain through a lecture versus experiential learning. This will set the stage for students and allow them to understand why I have structured our class the way I have, perhaps providing a clearer picture of what to expect and what not to expect from the class. I think that would change the way students perceive the activities. Becoming more transparent with students about the specific goal I have for each class period and activity would help them engage in the activity, and by extension, increase their connection to and retention of the course material.

Another aspect of the course that became a struggle for some students was the statistics involved in the research projects. This is not a statistics class, and these students do not have to take a statistics class in their program, but when I taught this class in the fall of 2014, I had students try to do this part of the project on their own. While I offered to help students individually with their statistics in my office, many students did not take me up on this. I also demonstrated how to run a t-Test and Anova, and pointed them to a number of additional tools (e.g. online videos, tutorials in SPSS Software, a handout guide, a chapter in their textbook that walked them through the steps they would need to take to gather the statistics for their projects), but it is still difficult and daunting to attempt the statistics without the background. Even if you are walking through it step-by-step, there is a huge learning curve that causes students anxiety. They were required to do it, but they did not really understand the meaning behind the numbers. I would like to make changes to this particular piece when I teach this again. One idea is to do more of a flipped classroom with assignments for them to do online ahead of time. Then we could use class time to run some of their stats up on the overhead screen together as a group. This would allow them to practice together, help each other out, and ask questions in that classroom space.

Overall, after looking through their answers on the Final Processing Questions on the last day of the semester, I saw that my students really did learn. They demonstrated a deeper, lasting learning, as opposed to the tests where students regurgitate facts. They wrote so much in just a few minutes. Without any prep time or notes, they filled the pages with thoughtful answers. The goal of this class and the final project was to help students build their professional skills so they can take their knowledge and skills into their future careers. The only way I think students are going to be able to internalize knowledge is if they work with the information over time, if it connects to what they already know, and if they can talk about it in an understandable manner to other people. You can have all sorts of book knowledge, but if you cannot communicate it to other people and help them understand it, then it is very limiting. I feel confident that the students in my fall 2014 MEMT 455 class will be able to take the information they learned and apply it to their different professions. The work I saw from students in their papers, posters, presentations, and responses to the Final Processing Questions, showed that students internalized a great deal over a semester full of engaged, interactive activities.

Contact CTE with comments on this portfolio: cte@ku.edu.


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