When I reflect on teaching and learning in higher education I realize that much of what I learned, I learned when I was a music student. Here are some of the highlights from the music studio that are just as applicable to university teaching and learning:
Practice, practice, practice. Actually, this would more aptly be phrased Practice-Feedback, Practice-Feedback, Practice-Feedback, but the rhythm just isn’t as good. I wouldn’t expect anyone to become a professional violinist without regular lessons with a qualified teacher. Regular feedback is critical to guiding students as they develop new skills. Without regular feedback, bad habits can become engrained and difficult to correct. In university, students learn a number of new skills and new ways of thinking and they need multiple opportunities to practice these skills with regular feedback. To ensure that students focus on the feedback and not just the grade, instructors can give a follow-up assignment students to make revisions highlighting how they have incorporated the feedback that they received on their first submission.
Practice the performance. When preparing for a recital or audition (a summative test), music students are advised to practice performing in front of friends, family –teddy bears if need be – several times, before the actual performance. Preparing for a performance is different from preparing for weekly lessons. Good performance preparation is crucial because in a performance you get one shot at the piece. There are no do-overs on stage. Similarly, when writing music theory or history exams, practicing the exam is an expected part of exam preparation. To facilitate this preparation, the Royal Conservatory of Music sells booklets of past exams. The Conservatory also returns graded exams so that students can see exactly where they earned and lost marks: considering that the Royal Conservatory of Music administers thousands of exams, three times a year, across the globe, this is a huge undertaking. At university, we know that self-testing is an effective study strategy and some instructors do provide several practice exams questions in their course. However, due to academic integrity concerns, the common practice is to deny students access to past exams as well as their own completed exam. I wonder if academic misconduct would be less of an issue if students were allowed to use past exams as practice tools. Amassing a large enough pool of past exam questions should address the concern that students will just memorize answers to questions that they’ve seen in advance.
Explicit instruction is key. It’s not very helpful to just tell a novice piano student to go home and practice. In the name of practicing, a novice student will, more than likely, play his or her piece over a few times, from bar 1 straight to the end, no matter what happens in between, and think that he has “practiced.” I know. I’ve heard it hundreds of times, and if you have a child in music lessons, I’ll bet you’ve heard it too. Explicit instruction means addressing many basic questions that an expert takes for granted: What does practicing look like? How many times a week should you practice? For how long should you practice? How do you know if you have practiced enough? How do you know if you have practiced well? Similarly, not all first students arrive at university knowing how to study. Many students would benefit from explicit instructions about learning and studying (e.g., What does studying look like? How do you know when you’ve studied enough? I’ve gone over my notes a few times – is that studying? Etc.
Know that students can’t learn it all at once. A good violin teacher knows that you can’t correct a student’s bow arm while you’re adjusting the left hand position, improving intonation, working on rhythm, teaching new notes, and refining dynamics. In any given lesson, the violin teacher chooses to let some things go while focusing on one particular aspect of playing otherwise the student will become too overwhelmed to take in any information at all. Suzuki teachers know that you always start by pointing out something positive about the student’s playing and that you can’t focus only on the errors. Students need encouragement. I think this is true at university as well. Becoming a good writer takes years and novice writers will likely continue to make several mistakes while at the same time improving one or two specific aspects of their writing. While giving feedback on written assignments, it’s important to acknowledge the positive aspects – that’s more encouraging that facing a sea of red that highlights only the errors.
Even if you didn’t take piano lessons as a child and even if have registered your 6 year old for hockey rather than violin lessons, I hope you’ll find these lessons from the music studio applicable to the university classroom.