Using Portfolios to Improve Music Instruction

Version 2Portfolios in education are collections of student work and of documents related to those pieces of student work. They make possible the documentation of student activity and learning, the reflecting upon work even days or weeks after it is completed, and the charting of progress over time as work collected at various moments is compared in order to assess growth. Maintaining a portfolio allows more lasting and in-depth learning to take place, and makes more tangible the accomplishments of music students whose work, particularly in the performing area, can easily be lost to time after a performance is given.

In this post, I will discuss the elements of the music portfolio other than the initial student work, which includes items like notated composed music, audio or video recordings of performances, and written responses to performed music. When students are participating in a music class, it is important for them to know what they are learning, as opposed to what they are doing. The two are not the same. If a child is asked what they are learning and the child replies that he or she is learning to sing a song, or play an instrument, then the teacher has not effectively communicated the learning objective. A child is learning a song in order to gain ability or proficiency or understanding of a musical concept or skill, and if a skill, then is learning that skill in order to gain proficiency or understanding of a concept. Even if the child’s actions are recorded and placed in a portfolio, understanding is easily lost unless the child has the opportunity to draw it out of the activity.

In order to do this, reflection is a necessary part of the portfolio building process. The reflection should answer at least three questions: what did you do? how well did you do what you did? How could you improve? What did you learn from doing what you did? The responses to these questions might look something like this: What did you do? I improvised rhythms that were four beats and that sounded scary.” How well did you do what you did? I think I did well making my rhythms sound scary, but I’m not sure how many beats most of them were. I didn’t do so well making them all four beats.” How could you improve? “I could learn how to make one beat with different kinds of notes. I don’t really understand the difference between beats and notes.” What did you learn from doing what you did? “I learned that using rests makes music sound scary, and that other people don’t think my music sounds scary. I also learned that it is fun to make my own notes.”

These are actual reflections that some of my students made after doing a rhythm composition project. Think of the juncture each student was at after finishing the project. Without the reflection piece, they would have performed their composition for me, supported their creative choices in terms of conveying an expressive intent, and that would have been the end of it. But with the addition of the reflection, the students notmusic and the brain only realize what is still unclear to them (knowing how to write one beat of music with various note and rest values), but I have the opportunity to address their need, and encourage them to pursue their improvement and praise their reflection, instead of just leaving them with the knowledge that they did part of the assignment incorrectly. The reflection also brings to the front of their mind the concepts of expressive intent, note/rest values, and interpretation (by classmates), and gives them the opportunity to think about what they have done, and what they will take away from the project and apply to other situations. Because the reflections are evidence of learning and are also self-assessments, they are, along with the initial product (in this case a notated rhythm composition) student work and so legitimately belong in the portfolio.

Davidson, Crouch, & Norton identified 5 learning processes. These processes align beautifully with the 4 artistic processes of the National Core Arts Standards (NCAS); they are naturally a part of how musicians work and correlate well with the Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions found in the NCAS. The 5 processes are, listening, performing, creating, questioning, and reflecting. Davidson, Crouch, & Norton explained that, “musicians become expert listeners; they constantly work at performance; they create with instruments or as composers and improvisers; they develop a questioning frame of mind in relation to their work; and they reflect constantly on the quality of their work, both through actions and words” Davidson, L., Crouch, S., & Norton, A, 2000). The extent to which musicians engage in questioning their work, of analyzing, generating ideas, organizing those ideas, rejecting or utilizing ideas, and shaping them into a creative composition or interpretation prepares students for not only producing musical work, but also of bringing high levels of scholarship through those kinds of inquiries to other disciplines, which in turn fosters the ability to make connections between music and the other arts, and between music and other disciplines, which is also featured in the NCAS.

Because there is always intent and interpretation in woven into the work of musicians, there is also reflection upon what has been done to determine the effectiveness of conveying the intent through creation and/or interpretation. Musicians are constantly reflecting on what they have just done in order to refine what they do next; such is the process of rehearsing and preparing a performance for presentation to an audience. When these reflections are made explicit through writing them down or verbalizing them in an interview, they are apt to result in more insight and more thoughtful and informed self-assessment and correction, than when they are allowed to be nothing more than passing thoughts made during momentary pauses in practicing or composing. The first two need no elaboration; performing and listening are part and parcel of what all musicians do. Listening includes all that is included in the NCAS for responding to music, and all that is done over the course of monitoring and knowing what a musical is doing and how well they are doing it. Teachers can collect students’ written accounts of questioning and reflecting, use those accounts to deepen learning, and include them in each child’s portfolio.

Davidson, L., Crouch, S., & Norton, A, (2000). Learning through music in elementary school, Journal for Learning Through Music, Summer 2000, 56-67.

How to Build a Music Portfolio

2011Symposium_1_2When it comes to student work in music classes, it can be difficult to collect student work because much of what students do in music classes is not normally written down. Singing, playing instruments and improvising produces no tangible artifact that can be collected into a folder and shared with students, teachers and parents. While some work in music class is (or should) be written, much of it is not. Nevertheless, music teachers must document what progress students are making with samples of their work. A good music portfolio will have a combination of writing about music, original music compositions, and music performances.

I used to think that if I assessed student musical performance with a rubric, and collected the rubrics into student folders, that was sufficient. The problem with that is the completed rubric is not what the student did. Calling completed rubrics of student work is like trying to persuade others that your grade book contains student work. Clearly it does not, it contains the results of evaluations of the student work. The thing that you graded, be it an essay, composition, or performance, is the student work, and it is those, in addition to  the assessment and evaluation documents that need to be preserved.

Recording student performances is the only way to collect student work when it is playing or singing. Students must be recorded individually on the same piece periodically throughout the year. By recording students performing the same piece, progress can be assessed. By making a recording, the student work is available for the teacher to assess and to compare with previous recordings, for the student to self-evaluate and hear his or her progress over time, for administrators who want to have tangible evidence of student work, and for parents who want to have a concrete answer to the question, “how is my child doing in music?”

The logistics of how to record large numbers of students individually presents a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. I prefer to just dedicate two or three class periods three times a year to recording every student. I make sure I give the class written work they can do independently and then call the children up to my desk one at a time to perform. If the rest of the class wants to quietly listen, fine, or if not they have their seat work to do silently. At other times, I will require that the class evaluate each student using the same self-evaluation instrument each child completes after they have made their recording. This gives students added practice at using the self-evaluation instrument, and sharpens their awareness of what good singing or playing is.

Another method to use is to have the recording device set up in an adjacent room, such as a practice room, and have students go make their recording one at a time independently. This method has the advantage of allowing you to teach a normal lesson and avoid suspending your normal classes while you assess the class. For this method, you must train your students in how to operate the recording equipment, and other logistical matters. For example, I like to keep the recordings anonymous when I’m assessing them, so I have students sign their name to a numbered list. Each student is assigned the number next to his or her name, and I record my assessment by these numbers. Later, after I have finished assessing, I can go back and add the names so I know how each student did, and look for growth compared to the last recording. The recordings are mp3 files, so they can easily be stored on a computer or compact disc, or shared with students via e-mail.

Written work from other music classes is still collected into folders and saved as part of the student’s portfolio of piano practicework. These include worksheets, journal entries, and essays about music. Self-evaluations and goal setting documents pertaining to preparing a musical work for performance can round out a portfolio that also includes audio recordings of the performance. Including audio recordings in a portfolio of music student work just makes sense. It frees music teachers up from artificially inventing written assignments just to produce tangible student work, and instead allows the teacher to document the actual presentation of musical works.