Keeping Learning Assessment Rigorous at Home

As if collecting assessment data were not challenging enough for music teachers, the distance learning environment we now find ourselves in adds an additional layer of concern. The ultimate goal of any educational instruction is to guide students to points where they can problem solve and apply learning to real-life situations. For some, holding school at home has afforded students to engage in more authentic learning activities than those which can be offered in school. Learning fractions by helping cook a family meal is an example of this.

When it comes to teachers and not parents (unless they happen to be the same) assessing student learning at home, collecting data from authentic learning activities such as performance assessment can be challenging at best, or, because of inaccessibility to technology, impossible. In such instances, teachers may need to rely on written work as the method of assessing student learning and collecting proficiency data. Here is where careful though must go into preparing those assessments, and indeed, the learning materials that lead up to the assessment.

For example, although many students are required to learn note names when at the beginning stages of learning to play a musical instrument, musicians do not name notes while they perform. Instead, they recognize a pitches location on a musical staff and associate it with a tone and a fingering. Advanced players use notation as a reminder of what to play, while relying on memory gained from practice and previous performances, which makes knowing note names even less necessary. So an assessment that simply asks students to name notes on a staff is nothing more than knowledge level assessment, and has virtually no real-life application. For what purposes will students as musicians need to know note names? We can state this as an essential question: How do musicians use note names?

The answer is that musicians use note names to analyze and discuss musical works. They analyze and discuss musical works in order to prepare informed interpretations and performances. The performances are informed because by analyzing tones and chords, they understand the melodic, phrase, and harmonic structure of the music they are working on. So a better assessment of note names is to have students complete tasks that involve analyzing, evaluating, and/or interpreting musical performances and works.

For example, instead of asking student to name the accidentals in a range of measures, ask them which notes does the composer use to accomplish the modulation from G major to A major in a given range of measures. In the first instance, the student is just giving a rote answer to a question that does not lead to any further learning or application. In the second instance, the student is looking for notes that have been altered to usher in a new key. This requires that the students have learned about modulations and how they are accomplished, and that note names were taught or reinforced as part of that instruction on modulations and not as an isolated rote exercise. When the student answers the item in the second instance, the teacher not only determines if the student knows note names (were the notes correctly named?) but also if the student understands that modulations require accidentals and therefore that is what they should be looking for.

In a similar way, listening activities can be structured so that they assess understanding of expressive musical elements such as dynamics, tempo, articulation, and orchestration. To assess these things, we could simply ask for definitions. Define dynamics. Define tempo. Define articulation, and so forth. Students may dutifully recite in writing and from memory definitions you taught them by rote, or provide accurate definitions in their own words, which is better, but not by much. Of course it is important and necessary to teach these definitions, but instruction cannot stop there. How do composers use these elements in the music they create? What effect do the use of these elements have on you as you listen to their music? For example, ask, “contrasts of what musical element are used in this music? What effect did these contrasts have on you as you heard them? Then play (or have them play, with directions on where to start and stop listening) the opening theme group of the overture to The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart. If they respond, “the music got suddenly louder, then it got quiet again,” then you know they heard the dynamic contrasts. But if they haven’t used the word “dynamics” or “dynamic,” then you know they haven’t learned the vocabulary, and that connection still needs to be made.

Next, tell them you (or they, again with start and stop timings) are going to play the second section of this overture. It sounds quite different from the first section. In what ways does the second section sound different from the first? What musical elements are involved in making it sound different in those ways? This is a great question for shared responses, because there are several answers. There is rhythmic contrast, orchestration contrast, articulation contrast, and dynamic contrast in that there is much less dynamic contrast. If you are hosting a live video session, your students can have a real-time discussion. If this is assigned work to be submitted, collect the responses, then share them at another time and have students respond in writing to their classmates work. Once again, the important thing is to go beyond simply identifying and naming things, and having students use those things you would have them identify or name for a real-life musical application.

The beauty of all this is that when you think of assessment in these terms, you will also think of your instruction the same way. You will design instruction so that it places vocabulary and concepts into a context in which what is learned can be applied. That is what defines learning. It is easy to know something; it is more demanding to understand it. Knowledge is not understood until it can be applied. The goal of teaching is to teach knowledge with the intent of teaching the application. Getting back to homeschooling, why have your child measure out a cup of flour, and then not have them mix it with other ingredients and bake something yummy? The same is true of knowledge. Think of it as that cup of flour. Why would you not have students do something wonderful with it?

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