Student Engagement in the Music Classroom

Version 2Music is one of those areas where people seem to think natural ability has as much to do with success as anything. Whereas we assume that with differentiated instruction all children can learn to read, learn to reason and compute mathematically, and learn to use the scientific method to find and discover knowledge and understanding, people often take a different view of the arts. This perspective is often held by our students as well. Many students believe that they cannot sing, compose, or play an instrument well because they lack the talent. They believe that no matter what amount of effort they put into it, the results will not be worth the investment of time, and so they do just enough to get by with a grade that is acceptable to them, and perhaps to their parents.

The critical point in this is that when a student has decided that in spite of his or her best effort, he or she will not attain the level of proficiency expected, that student has no reason to continue trying, and will exhibit behaviors of a disengaged learner; refusal to do the work, excessive talking, and other behaviors teachers would call disruptive or misbehaviors. Music teachers, usually without realizing it, reinforce and confirm the students conclusion that effort doesn’t matter when they assign grades on what the student achieves, accomplishes, or produces, regardless of what effort has been made. It can seem to the student unfair that he or she did the best they could and still received a poor grade. Whatever effort was needed to produce a better result, if it was beyond the student’s ability, then what ever effort they did put into it was for naught.

This raises the issue of whether or not grading should be based on effort at all; if grades should be solely on the end product. Conventional wisdom tells us that the younger the child, the more effort should be counted. This is so that children can learn that there is a correlation between effort and achievement, and that success rarely comes to someone who doesn’t try. In it’s most simplistic form, it is like the lottery slogan, “you can’t win if you don’t play.” You can’t succeed if you don’t try. This is a valuable lesson, and we teachers should never stop helping students make the cause and effect connection between effort and achievement. To those who believe that grades should only be based on achievement, I would say at some point, maybe graduate studies, that is true. But we are teaching students who have not fully learned how to learn, how to be a learner, a scholar, and even a success. We must do everything we can to complete that training as we also teach them our subject matter. If we have students in our classes or ensembles who are not succeeding, are discouraged and disengaged learners, then we cannot simply lower the boom of a bad grade and expect things to change. Students don’t choose low achievement, they experience it because something in the learning process is broken and needs fixing.

Counting effort as at least part of the music grade is an effective way to encourage a i-get-itdisengaged student to re-start with the hope of a different experience; one of success. Students like this need to hear feedback like, “I know the result of your work today wasn’t what you were hoping for, but I really liked the effort you put into it. You worked really well today and I’m confident that as you continue to work that way, you will see the kind of results you want. Keep up the good effort.” For a student like this, knowing that even though their achievement grade wasn’t great, they still walked away from that lesson with a solid effort grade. Those two grades, effort and achievement, can be scaled however the teacher wishes, but I would suggest a sliding scale, where for the struggling student effort is perhaps 60% and achievement 40%. As the student reaches set benchmarks in the achievement grade, the proportions can change until they are reversed: 40% for effort, 60% for achievement. I believe it is important to keep effort in the equation as a constant reminder that effort does count. Even when a student is getting straight A’s for achievement, he or she must remember that effort counts, that it is needed for continuing that excellence, or building greater achievement. Students who have that truth in front of them at all times, that effort counts, will be more engaged and better behaved in class.

Effort connects to one of four essential questions that every student asks him or herself (Marzano & Pickering, 2011). The question is, “can I do this?” The other questions are, “how do I feel? Am I interested? Is this important? The question of “can I do this” is tied to what a student bases his or her self-identity on. Dweck (2009) explained that students who believe success is based on talent or natural ability tend to stick to what they know they can do, and avoid trying new things or taking risks. This is because they fear failure, because if they fail people will see them as a counterfeit, as one who really wasn’t all that talented after all. In contrast, students who believe success is based on effort do not fear failure, but know how to use failure as a tool for learning and self-improvement. They have not tied their self-identity to talent, but if to anything then to the perseverance manifested in one who continues to try as a strategy and pathway to eventual success. This is why it is important to continually encourage students to maintain the effort, and to guide through taking away from failures all that can be learned from them, so that they assist in advancing toward the goal.

A student who is engaged in learning is able to answer the question “can I do this” in the affirmative. A belief in the value of effort is key to giving this answer. There is one more question that relates to being an engaged learner, and that is, “is this important.” This question is often referred to as relevance. Briefly, establishing relevance is contingent on the student being able to connect what he or she is learning to prior knowledge, experiences, interests, and context. These are addressed in the National Core Arts Standards wherever connecting is mentioned. Teachers can help students find material relevant by bridging to prior learning, giving students choices of how (written, oral, performance, etc.) and what (selecting artistic works to perform or to which to respond, and by planning authentic learning experiences, which are activities that reflect what musicians do in the real world, that is, outside your classroom.  Teachers who understand their students’ interests and ambitions can direct instruction toward what is most important to the students. The result will be that the students will see what they are learning as relevant, and their level of engagement will be correspondingly higher. Helping students gain the position of being able to answer the two questions, “can I do this,” and “is this important” affirmatively will cause them to be highly engaged in learning in the music classroom.

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D., & Heflebower, T. (2011). The highly engaged classroom. Bloomington, IN: Marzano Research.

Dweck, C. S. (2017). Mindset. New York: Random House



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