Writing Objectives for Music Students

2011 Symposium2

Objectives are essential to good teaching and effective learning. They articulate what students are expected to do and provide the framework for assessing student work. Both teacher and student can easily lose their way if they are not guided by well formed learning objectives. Though it is true that objectives are required for lesson plans and teacher evaluations, they nonetheless must be a natural part of the way teacher and students “do business” everyday in the classroom.

Objectives that are vague or too general are of little benefit to teacher or student. Objectives must specify what the teacher will be able to observe the student doing as an indicator of mastery. Objectives that only state that a student will “learn” or “understand” are not useful, because they don’t indicate what the student will do to demonstrate to the teacher or him/herself that they have learned or understood what has been taught.

Since the 1960s, teachers have been writing objectives for their students using whisper_musicBloom’s taxonomy. Verbs associated with each level of cognitive activity have been used to frame objectives Throughout, music teachers have at times struggled to implement objectives based on Bloom, because his taxonomy was skewed toward cognitive operations that ignored artistic processes and the necessary subjectivity that has its rightful place in the arts. When Bloom added an affective domain, that helped, but not much. Today, I will discuss how to write solid objectives for music, using action words that are better suited to music education than those coming from Bloom.

To begin, I have modified Bloom’s labels for affective levels. My altered taxonomy is attending (instead of receiving), responding, connecting (instead of valuing), structuring (instead of organizing), and perceiving (instead of internalizes values). Attending is requisite to all musical experience. Because music is presented in real time and over time, one must be invested in attending to the music being presented from beginning to end, without recourse to going beck and re-hearing, or pausing to consider. While these actions are possible with recorded music, they are not so with live music, and live music is the foundation of artistic activity.

anticipateWhen writing an objective for attending, we can look for our students to narrate, follow, hold in memory, identify, locate, name, select, reply and use. Listeners form a narrative that keeps musical events in sequence, makes recognition of variations and developments possible, and creates contexts within references and stories that lead to discovering a composer’s expressive intent. As the music continues, listeners identify recurring, parallel and developmental material, and associate names like first theme, transition, modulation and cadence. Listeners may reply to music they are hearing as they are reminded of other musical works, or as they create an improvised response as part of active participation in the performance.

“Students will be able to demonstrate an understanding of theme in music by locating in real time the start and end of two themes in a symphonic exposition using time on a clock.”

In the above example, locate is my verb, “in real time” and “using time on a clock” are conditions, and “the start and end of two themes” is what the students will be acting upon (locating). Notice that the objective is to understand phrasing in music, and the behavior that will demonstrate that understanding has taken place is locating the start and end of themes. A more advanced behavior might be that “students will be able to demonstrate an understanding of themes in music by describing how the composer used the elements of rhythm, pitch, articulation and dynamics to shape two themes in a symphonic exposition.” Here, the behavior is describing instead of locating. For this objective, students would need greater command of vocabulary and an ability to write or speak about music.

Students who are responding to music can be observed moving, performing, selecting, and practicing. Responding implies an active participation in making music, even while listening, and always involves interpreting. Students may practice singing or playing what they just heard, using music to which they listened as a model for their own singing or playing. They may respond to music by interpreting the music with movement or dance, they may clap, sing, or play along.

Students will be able to demonstrate their response to music by interpreting it through movement, singing, clapping, or dancing.

There are multiple ways a person can interpret a musical work. This objective includes an opportunity for students to choose which way or ways they will interpret the music. Any of these choices will involve actively participating in making music, but regardless of which one the student chooses, the objective being met is the same.

Students are connecting when they can be observed sharing, justifying, joining, Musical-Balancefollowing, inviting, reading, and reporting. Students connect using their emotions, feelings, and subjective responses to music they are hearing. Listeners are eager to share with others what is most meaningful to them. When a student has shared music with another, it is because they have made a connection with the music that causes them to attach value. A student who justifies his or her preference or interest in a musical work must do so by describing a connection, and a student who joins in listening (is a willing attender to the music), shares or recommends the music to another, or seeks out further information about the music through reading and questioning, has also connected.

Listeners structure music constantly. Our brains naturally group musical events into patterns, phrases, themes, voices and the like in order to make sense of what we are hearing. Students can only be observed structuring through spoken or written descriptions of the mental images they have formed of the music. For example, if a student says the second theme was introduced by the flute, then that is evidence that he or she grouped the sounds made the flute together and understood them as a single entity with a beginning and an end, and was able to call that group of sounds the second theme. We only know the student listening to music perceived that structure when he or she tells us. Understanding of structure is more easily observed when students create musical works. Then, they can be seen organizing, arranging, integrating, preparing, combining, and relating groups of musical sounds into an artistic work with an expressive intent.

Whereas connecting speaks to the music having relevance and value to one’s self, perceiving deals with having relevance and value to another. Perceiving is evidenced when a musical work is received with an open mind, and is objectively evaluated on its merit, without prejudice or a negative attitude. Perceiving is seen when students value other people, ideas and cultures with an open-minded approach to unfamiliar kinds of musical works. Things that a perceiving student does include discriminate, display, perform, question, revise, and solve. Students who are perceiving discriminate between their self-perception and perception of others, question to generate new knowledge and learning, and probe beyond what was taught, creating a bridge to other people, cultures and ideas. Revisions improve the work and show a greater acceptance of diversity, and all of this is reflected in the depth of expression  communicated through performance.

When writing objectives, include what the student has to work with, including time and materials, what the student will be able to do, that is what he or she will be observed doing, after the unit of teaching is completed to prove level of mastery. If the objective is an intermediary one to a final objective, the level of proficiency may also be given, such as that the the student will score at least 75 on an essay writing rubric. Writing solid objectives will make clear what and how to assess, and will help students focus and direct their learning purposefully.


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