Author Archive: kevinrburke

Planned and Surprise Debates

Debate is an effective pedagogical tool for engaging students in the classroom and guiding them through the pros and cons of complex issues. In my music classes, I tend to initiate two types of debates, planned and surprise. Both require active participation of all students, but exercise different skill sets.

Planned debates require students to conduct independent research and develop cogent talking points with teamwork and careful preparation. I announce a topic from one of the main themes in the textbook in advance and assign oppositional sides and supporters. Each student is given a worksheet to complete as a prerequisite for the debate. Students work together with colleagues through Moodle discussion forums and chats split into oppositional sides outside of class and a debate moderator I assign ensures that each student participates. While the actual debate itself can be lively and enriching, the gem of the activity lies in what students accomplish prior to the debate. Planned debates demonstrate student success in speaking, research, collaboration, and argument; however, the skills underutilized include listening, quick-thinking, and adaptation, all targeted by the surprise debate.

Surprise Debates are as spontaneous for the professor as they are for students. Whereas planned debates benefit from predetermined reference to specific topics from the textbook, surprise debates are effective in intervening when the primary course objectives are under scrutiny. I have initiated surprise debates when discussions are lackluster or when students are resistant to learning. When needed, I ask students to stand and without hesitation move to oppositional sides at the edges of the classroom. An object representing a speaker’s staff is passed among students who are immediately responsible for addressing the primary issue; students can change sides at any time. I observe silently and tap students who’ve just made profound statements to join me in the middle of the room so that all students are eventually pressed to speak. While much of the learning in planned debates is front loaded, the most beneficial aspect of surprise debates is the follow up discussion. Although I have not tried it, Twitter feeds and periodic clicker polls projected on the screen could assist students in monitoring changes in opinion and the direction of the discussion; both will be helpful in the period of reflection.

To maximize the potential gain of debates in music courses, it is important to consider targeted learning outcomes. Often music courses for undergraduates have specific content and perhaps one or more general education (liberal arts) objectives. While these should be at the forefront when engaging and assessing both planned and surprise debates, one should not forget the broader goals of higher education and the variety of transferable skill sets that debates require: critical thinking, adaptability, research, and public speaking, to name a few. As Snider and Schnurer have effectively presented, exercising these skills through debate across the Freshmen and Sophomore curricula will help prepare students for upper-level courses, graduate school, and future careers.

Too Many Graded Assignments

Over the past few years I’ve added more and more graded activities to my classes than ever before. In a 2006 section of early music history, there were 8 total graded items on the syllabus (participation, one presentation, two quizzes, two short papers, a midterm exam, and a final exam; the final exam was worth 40% of the final grade). My 2011 section of early music history had 24 graded items (participation, 12 reflections posted to the online discussion forum, 4 quizzes, 2 tests, 2 short papers, a presentation, a midterm exam, and a final exam; the final exam was worth 20% of the final grade). My recent music theory classes had daily assignments and sight singing recordings, my music history classes had regular discussion forum postings and listening quizzes, and my world music classes had frequent vocabulary and map quizzes. My intention to increase the number of graded activities during the course of the semester was understandable: students were engaged with the material on a daily basis; I could monitor whether students were keeping up with the content; and I could assure the grade-obsessed students that their poor performance on one quiz would have minimal impact on their final average.

In light of some recent findings on student learning, such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment, I’ve becoming more critical of this trend. Grades, which we need to remember from time to time, are a score of performance and not always an adequate indicator of learning and the lasting impact of a course. If students can amass 60% of their final grade from low impact/low challenge activities that can be completed the night before, will they be prepared for sustained projects? How can we encourage students to conduct self-guided, regular learning habits when we prompt them with dozens of assignments? Will students be successful after graduation with few high-stake assessment measures?

One approach may be to require regular learning activities, but grade them only sporadically. I’ve applied this approach through surprise (i.e. “pop”) quizzes that permit notes (but not textbooks) or through written reflections, so that students are encouraged to read chapters regularly. Imagine an online discussion forum or quiz for each class meeting that are graded on a few random days during the semester.

Another approach is to tie a variety of learning activities toward one big “performance” in a flipped classroom. The Reacting to the Past (RTTP) gaming model inspires students to self-guide themselves through reading, writing, and problem solving exercises outside of class in order to “win.” Student performance in the classroom is assessed, but the variety of learning measures leading up to the performance are not graded.

A third approach that comes to mind is what I call “participatory homework” in my music theory classes. In addition to a handful of homework assignments that students submit in Finale, daily exercises from the workbook or Moodle are tied to attendance. Students are present in class if they have completed the preliminary work.

A gradual shift toward numerous graded assignments resembles trends in K-12 education, easing the transition to a collegiate learning environment. The intent is good; an aggregate of numerous, low-stake assessments will help more students receive passing grades. But will this lead to success in the future? Life and a competitive global marketplace will have numerous high-stake challenges. Will higher passing and graduation rates attest to the impact of an institution on student learning and post-graduation success? I suppose that depends on who answers.

Targeting Technology Toward Pedagogy

In recent years as I’ve gradually begun integrating technology into my teaching in and out of the classroom, I’ve guided my pursuits by the following phrase: “allow technology to enhance, not dictate, your pedagogy.” While the message may seem naive and a bit too simplistic for the complexities of instruction in 21st-century higher education, I remain confident that its guidance has served me well. I’ve witnessed the rise and fall of the “next big thing” and dodged a slew of aggressive advertisements by companies with devices that are already obsolete. Student engagement with technology does not always translate to higher scores, skill sets, and understanding.

Last week I had the privilege of attending my first “un-conference,” Flip Camp Music Theory 2013, at Charleston Southern University, which embraced the possibilities of technology wholeheartedly. Conference organizers Kris Shaffer, Bryn Hughes, and Phil Duker have pioneered the application of social media, just-in-time teaching, and screencasting, among other techniques, to the music theory and musicianship classrooms. As a musicologist straying from my usual conference fare, I was immediately exposed by my lack of an aluminum Macbook Pro. But after a quick Twitter tutorial, I was ready to go!

What really impressed me by this conference was that technology was targeted toward a primary pedagogical method, the flipped classroom. The show-and-tell and open discussion forum continually addressed the possibilities that arise when students take responsibility for the content out of the classroom. Technology did not take the spotlight away from the professor; the flipped environment did so that students could apply what they learned out of class to activities in the classroom instead of sitting passively in a lecture.

Despite my heavy adoption of iPads to classroom activities, I remain relatively low tech: I do not correspond with my students via Twitter or Facebook; I still administer Bluebook exams; and I write my first drafts by pencil. However, I am encouraged to continue exploring new platforms of instruction when I see colleagues directing new technological possibilities toward specific learning outcomes. Leaving the un-conference, I was already brainstorming how I could apply what I learned to enhancing my own pedagogical methods. I shall share soon enough!

Thoughts on Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences

The big news of last week was the recommendations made in the report of the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences for more support for and emphasis on teaching those disciplines. Administrators and faculty alike have begun a series of back-patting as media ranging from mainstream news outlets to the Chronicle have quickly celebrated validation for continuing to promote traditional fields of study.

The report’s presentation on the national level, though, leaves a lot of questions as to the implications for the majority of Americans in local school districts and state institutions of higher education. Will the optimistic news have any significant impact on changing public sentiment toward the value of a college degree? Will local and state governments suddenly begin investing more in “big picture” disciplines? Will humanities and social science researchers try to reach mainstream issues and audiences?

The announcement reminds me of the championing of liberal arts degrees by employers, proclaiming that they seek talented, well-rounded employees who can adapt to change, communicate effectively in writing, and think critically. This is all good, but what impact do these candid statements have on actually hiring trends? Most college graduates will submit their first job applications to mid-level hiring managers and receive the scrutiny of automated screening programs. Job descriptions match position titles with the ever-growing selection of career-minded majors that reference specific jobs rather than timeless liberal arts. It seems to me that companies ought to invest as heavily in humanities-based grants as they do STEM ones if these qualities are needed in the workforce.

Where does this leave teachers? It would be a difficult battle to advise undergraduates to go against the post-recession culture of career-sensitive education. But that does not mean that traditional liberal arts, humanities, and social sciences are mere buzzwords. Persistent reflection on the broad skills, global perspective, and interdisciplinary mindset these fields cultivate should be at the forefront of every class. College faculty in these areas need to expose ALL students to the relevance of traditional subjects in contemporary contexts. This includes courses for both majors and non majors. And these qualities and skills are not inherently tied to traditional content. Emphasis on writing, creativity, and problem solving should be recurring functions of all classes. It’s up to teachers to guide students through process of understanding the value of the humanities, whether new students continue to choose modern professional degree programs over traditional fields of study.

The report encourages institutions to support teachers in these disciplines. If students trend away from these majors, administrators will need to rally behind their effective teachers. It may be difficult to sustain departments anchored by senior research scholars and their graduate students as the number of undergraduate majors continue to decline. In agreement with the report’s criticism of inward-focused trends, emphasis should be placed on making these fields relevant to the general studies curriculum by addressing contemporary needs in local, national, and global contexts. Courses of this nature should focus on collaborative, interdisciplinary problem solving and model the application of humanities and social sciences to issues in need of real scrutiny and change. Content will be the byproduct, not the focus.

When to break it to ’em

I’ve addressed “why you need this course” many times in my syllabi and first day spiels. The intention to “get the record straight” before the class commences is certainly understandable. We don’t want students to harbor skepticism that may inhibit their learning experience. Furthermore, we may also wish to prevent any undesirable comments on course evaluations and We want the buy in immediately, so we turn to the selling mode on day one.

With this approach, however, the professor potentially risks one of the most important outcomes of higher education: critical thinking. Indoctrinating students before they have had an opportunity to engage with the material is denying them an environment where they can challenge the system. Do you want your students to speak their mind in class? Do you want students to develop thesis statements that creatively go against the majority? Do you want students to deconstruct long-standing theories? Of course you do!!! Well, then let them.

You cannot have is both ways. If you present students with your offer of value on the first day, then they will make their decision on whether to buy into it on the first day. Either they will accept the value because you told them to or they will tune out because your actions told them that you’re a phony. The semester will be a drag. However, if you want them to critically engage with course topics, you have to let them call you out from time to time. This is what an intellectual community does.

Breaking the news to them that your course will have long-term value is something that should come later in the semester and it should be initiated by the students. Everything will need to be thrown on the table when students begin to challenge what you’re doing and to question whether it’s worth their time. Your willingness to put your plan on hold when the time presents itself will convince students of your authenticity as an educator. Furthermore, all sides are now privy to course content and thus in a better position to discuss on equal grounds. It’s not fair to tell students they need the content of the course when you haven’t even shown it to them yet. If you can guide the discussion to allow students to formulate plausible connections between their learning experiences and future scenarios, the buy in will be far greater. And they will have arrived at this by exercising the inquisitive mindset we are trying to cultivate.

Not every student will see the connection, even after this conversation. It will be tempting to consider it shortsighted. However, if the class has the opportunity to challenge you and the encouragement to support that challenge with evidence, then they’re modeling something more valuable than you could over sell them with a lecture.

Defining the Liberal Arts in the 21st Century

One of the challenges liberal arts institutions face is defining liberal arts for prospective students and their parents. Although the curriculum and its benefits seem obvious to faculty and administrators, it can be a tough sell from time to time. This is especially true today amidst growing skepticism about the value of higher education and a strong desire for job-specific training. The term liberal arts has complicated usage because it is defined differently, depending on the context. Over the years I’ve begun framing the concept of liberal arts from five perspectives.

1. The Traditional Subjects. The Trivium (Logic, Rhetoric, Grammar) and Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy) of the Middle Ages–which you can see displayed in the banner of this website. These seven areas defined the structure of higher education in Medieval Europe and are an important model for the general education curricula found in primary and secondary schools as well as the core requirements of most four-year, bachelor of arts degree programs.

2. General Education Requirements. Most college and university undergraduate degree programs now require a standard set of courses or subject requirements outside of the major area. Depending on the type of institution (private liberal arts college, public university, etc.) and the type of degree (bachelor of science, bachelor of arts, etc.) the number of courses and proficiencies may vary. The most common requirement areas include composition, speech, literature, natural sciences, social sciences, fine arts, foreign language, intercultural, quantitative, and physical education. This list is simplified, since the requirements could have slightly different names, definitions, or sub fields that satisfy them. Most students equate liberal arts to this framework, because it is clearly itemized for them on degree requirement checklists. The challenge is showing students that these course requirements are established to ensure the breadth of knowledge, experience, and exposure rooted in a liberal arts education.

3. High Impact Experiences. Some components of the curriculum are not defined by a particular course or field of study, but rather an experience that should dramatically impact the student and significantly further their development and preparation for life after graduation. Some of these experiences include internships, capstone projects, service learning, comprehensive exams, a thesis, and study abroad, although other types of experiences could also be added to this common list. Sometimes these components are specific requirements to be filled and other times they are unique opportunities the institution provides for students that may set the institution apart from competitors.

4. Skills for Successful Careers. In other contexts the liberal arts are defined by a set of skills a student will develop that will help them thrive in the workforce, no matter their major (i.e., transferable). The courses and experiences of the liberal arts education are designed to challenge students in these areas so they are prepared to compete in the global economy. These skills include oral and written communication, cross-cultural sensitivity and awareness, research and information literacy, analytical thinking, creativity, synthesis, problem solving, and critical thinking, among others. Often these are skills itemized on job descriptions. Showing students how courses engage in skill development and that these skills are what employers desire will help broaden the discussion of the benefits of a liberal arts education.

5. Higher Purpose. The final framework for defining the liberal arts serves the institution’s higher purpose, usually expressed in the mission statement. I like to think of this list as desirable ways of describing alumni, no matter what direction they take post graduation. This list would include moral character, leadership, civic engagement, global citizenship, life long learning, among other things. Although the curriculum cannot define attributes as an outcome of specific courses and experiences, the nature of liberal arts study should ideally cultivate these traits in students.

It’s difficult to package the nature of the liberal arts into a brief sound bite or slogan. As institutions continue to adapt to changing public attitudes toward higher education, it will be important to remember the contexts in which the term “liberal arts” appears. One can define the liberal arts from a variety of angles. When explaining the value of a liberal arts education, it will be important to be aware of how the term is used and received in conversation.

On Grading, Part 2

One of the biggest steps in transitioning students from high school to college classes is showing them the difference between text and context. When Western music cultures, for example, began notating music and eventually printing and selling it, music as a living cultural expression became a thing. The process of thingifying music–the academic in me says I should probably use a word like reify, but thingify just rolls off the tongue so nicely–explains how the canon of great works formed. This process crosses into other expressions of culture as well, where Shakespeare’s plays became curricular texts and Howard Zinn uncovered another history of America. The point is that when intangible activities and events become objects, something is left out.

When we explain this process of thingification to our students, we ought to introduce the concept of grades as an analogy. A grade is a measurement of performance within a limited parameter, whether it be a quiz, a presentation, or group participation. There are so many things to a class that cannot be measured because despite our best efforts we cannot contain or quantify them. Something is always left out. Have students make lists of everything they can connect to a course: trying to figure out what Schopenhauer is saying, tracking all of the diminutive variants of Crime and Punishment character names, crafting a sixteenth version of a thesis statement that will hopefully pass muster, to name a few. Grades on a transcript ten years down the line will not document these components of the class.

As we help students start to realize the limits of the text and the deep layers of the context, we should also help them start viewing the limits of grades. Grades have their purpose just as a history text has its purpose. But when we thingify the learning experience, we misrepresent value. Anxiety over the impact of grades on job prospects and scholarship requirements may not go away completely, but perhaps this conversation will help remind students that there are many worthwhile components of a class that cannot be represented on paper.

How Grading Kills Camaraderie in the Classroom

Ahmed Afzaal’s recent piece in The Chronicle, “Grading and its Discontents,” touches on a dynamic hot topic in higher education, student obsession with “the grade.” Afzaal presents several key arguments aimed at distinguishing performance grades from actual learning. He rightfully illustrates how peers, parents, and pre-college schooling have shaped this grade-oriented mentality, but we ought to also consider how the environment of higher education enables it. Too often classrooms reinforce the goals of the individual; students are held to individual expectations and assessed on individual performance. Certainly group activities may temporarily expand responsibility beyond the student to multiple members of class, but this is rarely tied to the overall purpose of the course. What is lacking is a sense of camaraderie.

Imagine a major league baseball team. Individual players are assessed in a variety of statistical categories: earned run average, home runs, on base percentage, innings pitched, etc. These statistics serve individual player goals for free agency, salary arbitration, and promotion from the minors to the majors. But what happens when a team is making a run for the playoffs? The only statistic that matters is team wins. All of a sudden the individual goals are not the driving force of the players. Clenching a wild card spot, knocking off a division rival team, and winning the Pennant and World Series are now the aspiration for all members of the team, something special and uniquely shared within the group. There is camaraderie in this pursuit and it brings out the best in players.

Imagine a non-profit organization’s devotion to a measure on an upcoming election ballot. The stakes are high. The amount of work required to have an edge is endless. There are no 40-hour work weeks. Late nights, creativity, teamwork, and resourcefulness are required. The members of this team develop camaraderie through the collective experience. The push leading up to the election resembles a semester course: the timeline may be limited but the outcomes will be lasting.

So how do we create this environment in the classroom? First we have to convince students that the stakes are much higher than grades. There are a number of ways to accomplish this: current events, service learning, community outreach, simulations, games, undergraduate research, etc. If students buy into the outcomes of these goals, then they will have a purpose in the class other than “the grade.” A second step is to show students that their semester in the class is a unique experience. When curricular courses are taught by professors the same way each time, there is nothing special about being in a particular section in a given semester. I’m not saying that professors have to start completely from scratch. Framing a course around an unique objective can help students bond and place their efforts into something far greater than their individual pursuits.

The 5-Point Forum Post

One of the most commonly used components of online course management sites is the discussion forum. Many instructors require students to post reflections on assigned readings with the ultimate goal that an intellectual dialogue will materialize in the forum. I’ve experimented with this approach for several years now and have developed a 5-point grading rubric that has yielded more insightful student writing and has improved assessment efficiency:

A “5” Response follows directions and is well organized, clear in prose, and original in thought. The submission is highly polished and free of grammatical and spelling errors. The author references supporting resources properly, makes clever use of analysis and course terminology, and demonstrates a high level of critical thinking and persuasive writing. Excellent.

A “4” Response follows directions, presents good organization and clear prose, and provides some original ideas. There may be a misspelling or grammatical error, but the submission is acceptable in writing style. The author refers to appropriate resources and provides some discussion of the piece, event, or essay. The author may occasionally get off topic and include some ideas that do not strengthen the submission. An original thesis is present, but the argument may be lost at times. Good.

A “3” Response has some recognizable organization and readable prose, but summarizes rather than argues. There are large block quotes or paraphrased passages from the assigned reading that are not effectively integrated into the argument. There are frequent misspelled words and grammatical errors and the formatting does not always follow directions. A musical piece is discussed, but not tied into the argument, and there is little evidence of critical thinking. Average.

A “2” Response rarely follows directions. The topic is related to the assignment but there is no argument that responds to the prompt. There is no reference to the provided resources or poor use of them. The submission is rife with grammatical and spelling errors. It appears that the student has cut and pasted information from various sources and strung the ideas together into an incoherent mess. Components are missing, such as a discussion of the required piece, event, or essay. Poor.

A “1” Response is incomplete. The word count may be well under the requirement and the author has clearly not read the directions and taken interest in the assignment. The writing style is incomprehensible at times and the focus is unclear. The student has submitted a related, but off topic writing sample for this assignment. Failing.

A “0” Response is absent or plagiarized.

For this system to work, students must have a clear understanding of what “critical thinking” means and be able to recognize the difference between quality and poor college writing. In my experience, students will submit their best efforts once they have actively explored a range of samples I provide them. I give the students 2 or 3 anonymous posts from previous semesters along with the rubrics. Groups evaluate the examples and assign grades using the 5-point scale. I ask each group to report their grades and explain why one submission demonstrates critical thinking and another does not. The concensus is usually that critical thinking requires the author to present an original idea and support it with examples from both within and outside of the assigned reading. The rubrics are helpful, but the followup assessment and discussion are what really encourage the best student writing for the semester.

Online course management discussion forums are a useful tool for engaging students outside of class with a discussion of major course topics. However, it is not enough to grade students on their “participation.” The public forum is a fruitful opportunity to push students to put their best work forward and to adopt critical thinking habits for the semester. The 5-point rubric offers students clear expectations for quality work and gives instructors an efficient evaluation tool.

Dr. George “Arkansas” Smith

This morning I came across Mark Carnes’s “Setting Students’ Minds on Fire” on the homepage of The Chronicle of Higher Education. I remember reading this last year–and am not really sure why it resurfaced on today’s page–and envisioning an action hero of sorts, Arkansas Smith, a mid 20th-century musicologist who splits his time as a professor at Amherst College and a covert researcher in the catacombs of secret European libraries. His oversized conductor’s baton is a front, as he is a skilled swordsman and not afraid to challenge unreasonable library hours. Think Indiana Jones meets Robert Langdon.

In the spirit of the “Reacting to the Past” games, here is my list of Arkansas Smith’s great mysteries:

The Origin of Gregorian Chant

The Genesis of Machuat’s Messe de Nostre Dame

The Original L’homme arme

The Intended Cycles of Bach’s Lutheran Cantatas

Salieri and the Death of Mozart

Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved

The Composer of the Mendelssohn Italien Lieder: Fanny or Felix?

Was Hans Pfitzner a Nazi?

Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony: Political Rehabilitation or Satire?

Perhaps Arkansas Smith should pay a visit to the classroom from time to time. Since most of my students are puzzled by what a musicologist does, I frequently bring in primary sources (manuscripts, concert reviews, diaries, correspondence) for them to use in concluding what my colleagues published in academic journals years ago. While this approach allows students to arrive at the material in an active fashion, rather than passively skimming it in the textbook, motivation is still a challenge. If “Reacting to the Past” does excite students in the way Carnes describes, then I’m willing to try framing these activities in game-like fashion as students assume the role of the dynamic, musicological hero.