Verbs for Instructional Objectives in Music

Over the years, one of the things I have found that often confounds music educators, is how to go about writing instructional objectives, or even what exactly are instructional objectives. One little piece of the confusion is the term instructional. These objectives can more accurately be called, as they once often were, behavioral objectives. Thinking of them as behavioral helps, because it delimits what is stated in the objective to things that can be observed. We can’t observe understanding or learning, we can only observe what an individual does, the behavior, that evidences the understanding or learning. Saying that students will understand sonata form gives us no indication as to how we, the teacher will know when the student has gained that understanding, or even what specific learning is contained within that desired understanding. It is much more useful to say the student, in response to music to which he or she has listened, “will be able to demonstrate through a combination of singing, playing and describing, the use of sonata form in a given musical work.” Or, one could say the student, in creating music, “will demonstrate proficiency in writing an exposition, development, and recapitulation as the formal organization of an original composition.”

Now go back and look at the two example objectives just given, and notice the verbs. They include demonstrating, singing, playing, describing, and writing. These are all things that we can observe students doing, and they are all things that produce a product which can be evaluated; that is, demonstrating produces a demonstration, describing a description, writing a written work, singing and playing a performance. What the student can do is documented in the action of demonstrating, singing, and so forth. What the student has learned is demonstrated in the product–its content and its accuracy. These two observables are critical: behavior and the product the behavior has made. The behavior must be tied to the desired learning. For example, a student may drum his or her fingers on a desk while composing a musical work. That is a behavior, but it in no way indicates the success with which the student is accomplishing the task of creating music.

Now that we have established the basics of instructional objectives, I am ready to fulfill the promise of the title of this article, providing verbs for your objectives. I will do this by categorizing verbs into the domains of the revised “Bloom’s Taxonomy.” Objectives written at the higher domains, tend to foster more rigorous instruction and school administrator approval.

By reviewing the National Core Arts Standards, we find there the following verbs: explore, create, generate, improvise, describe, explain, arrange, compose, select, organize, construct, document, notate, discuss, refine, interpret, apply, develop, evaluate, share, present, convey, connect, craft, perform, collaborate, analyze, identify, rehearse. The lowest level of cognition on the taxonomy is remembering. Verbs at this level are identify and arrange, although arranging a piece of music is a higher level operation than arranging objects into a learned order or grouping; the latter is what is meant here. Because these verbs are indicative of lower level thinking, objectives using them should be at the early stages of the instructional sequence. Using them for summative tasks should be avoided.

The next level is understanding. Students understand before they can put what they understand to use. Verbs at this level include discuss, explain, identify, and select. Understanding is heavily dependent on verbal skills, as students use their words to complete tasks formatted with these verbs, and to a lesser extent, reasoning skills used to select and draw conclusions about knowledge.

The third level is applying. Wiggins and McTighe stated that students only understand something when they can apply it to new situations; what is often referred to as transferring knowledge. This is where we transition from what students know to what they can do. This is also where there is a risk of students disengaging from learning at this point if they are not able to apply what they have learned. Knowledge without application quickly becomes irrelevant and boring. Verbs at this level are apply, demonstrate, interpret, and select. Notice the recurrence of select. At the understanding level, the selecting is of the recognition kind. A student might select which among two musical works is an example of rondo form. Here, at the applying level, students are considering and weighing factors in order to select something with which they will interact. Most often in music, they will be selecting a musical work for responding or performing, and will be considering their ability, interests, knowledge, and the context in which the performance of the selected work will take place. The student is applying his or her knowledge of all these factors in order to make the selection.

Next, there is analyzing. Analysis informs us of how something works, or why something is what it is. Our verbs here, including a few not found in the standards but too important to omit, are explore, demonstrate, classify, compare, contrast, question, and test. The last, test, is meant in the sense of testing out a hypothesis, not in taking an examination. Question and explore are closely related, as one utilizes exploration to pursue answers to questions.

The fifth level is evaluating. Included in this are refine, rehearse, and evaluate. The action of evaluating involves making a quality judgment on completed or in process work. Musicians are constantly evaluating their performance as they practice and rehearse, but there is also the evaluation of the works themselves, and of the performances of others. Evaluation in music is often an ongoing process from which refinement is wrought. Indeed, refining is accomplished by evaluating, changing, and performing in a repeating cycle until the evaluation shows the performance ready to be presented to an audience.

The final and highest level of thinking is creating. Verbs included are create, develop, and generate. Notice not every stage in the creating process is at this level. Organizing generated ideas into a musical form, for example, at the analyzing level, and selecting which ideas to use and which ones to reject is at the understanding level. What we mean at the creating level is the actual conception and making of musical ideas which will then be manipulated at lower cognitive levels to become part of a completed work.

Utilizing higher level verbs is helpful in maintaining and even generating student interest and engagement, because it presents students with meaningful and relevant content and stimulating issues and problems to be examined and solved, respectively. They also make teaching more rewarding and easier; easier because they more clearly focus instruction, and rewarding because students achieve more when more is asked of them through the rigor of objectives made from high level verbs.


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