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Instant formative feedback: How technology can help in the music classroom

Written by: Emma Hayward
9 min read
Emma Hayward, Director of Music, Heathfield Knoll School, UK

In order for our students to make progress within the classroom, music teachers are particularly adept at giving immediate, usually verbal feedback based on the development of skills as well as understanding. Booth states that ‘teachers who model, observe and give learners constructive comments are using formative assessment… it focuses on what the next steps are on an individual and personal level’ (Booth, 2017, p. 27). It is often noted that ‘music teachers have long been used to doing proper formative assessment; indeed, the whole history of musical teaching and learning involves dialogic formative assessment’ (Kinsella and Fautley, 2020, p. 72). The point of formative assessment is for assessment to be used as responsive to the learning that it has affected (Wiliam, 2013). Booth states that ‘formative assessment is a process and involves working with students so that learners know where they are in their learning, where they need to be, and how they are going to get there’ (2017, p. 27). One could even argue that the very essence of individual musical progression is rooted in a form of autonomous formative feedback: self-evaluation.

Spendlove states that learner empowerment to develop learning autonomy is ‘central’ to assessment for learning, asserting that ‘involving learners in their own learning not just through reflection but also as co-constructors and co-negotiators of their learning… is central to… the development of an appetite for genuine lifelong learning’ (2009, p. 10). This is never truer than for music and highlights the importance of formative feedback therein. Without that empowerment and autonomy within their own private practice, students are not going to become proficient in music.

It is easy enough to imagine how a music teacher fits in so much informal feedback. Students are busy mastering a particular skill, and the teacher is moving around the practical space, listening in and intervening at various points with verbal feedback and modelling, for example. Add COVID-19 into the equation, however, and take away shared practical spaces and the options of sharing instruments, singing or modelling within two metres of your students, and music teachers all over the world are struggling with the impact of COVID-19 upon their normal practice. Teaching from designated bubble spaces and wearing face masks, without your equipment and without becoming a noise nuisance to those nearby, is tough. Teaching students online is tough. How can we ensure that students are still able to make musical progress, if indeed this is rooted within this dialogic formative assessment, whilst we are separated from our students by the very time and space in which music exists? As with everything at the moment, it is made slightly easier if they are fortunate enough to access technology, whether in or out of school.

Context

In my small all-through school, Chromebooks have been provided for all students in Years 5 to 11 since October 2020. I am acutely aware that my situation is less difficult than for most music teachers – and their students – thanks to this technology. At the time of writing, we have just begun exiting our third national lockdown and schools have returned after eight weeks of remote learning to the news of teacher assessments for our summer exam grades. I am learning that there are ways in which technology can step up in this time of crisis and allow the teaching and learning of music through formative feedback to continue, albeit differently. In this article, I will set out ways in which I am managing to use technology to make learning and assessment meaningful and relevant to my subject despite these restrictions.

The ‘new normal’

Across the summer term (whilst teaching live lessons remotely) and autumn term (whilst in school), the number of restrictions upon music felt almost unsurpassable. I took the approach of throwing out the curriculum map and instead made the most of what could be taught effectively. This afforded me creativity within the bounds of what was possible. In the autumn term, I reserved guitars and ukuleles for bubble groups and carefully risk-assessed singing activities with our youngest students (considering space, airflow, numbers and distancing), bought Boomwhackers and drumsticks for chair drumming, and planned lots of body percussion and rhythm work to supplement my curriculum. Despite my best efforts, there have been many lessons that I have been unable to safely fill with practical ‘musicking’, for varying reasons including resources, space, noise, cleaning and singing-related risks. Here, I took the opportunity to develop those skills that are usually less of a focal point and which constitute a lower risk; the obvious choice here is music theory.

After working without formal workbooks for several years, I inevitably turned to paper workbooks, worksheets and exercises again. I found that modelling theoretical concepts was difficult whilst maintaining a distance from the students, and marking to inform my planning after each lesson was unsustainable, particularly with quarantining the work after it had been handed in before marking it. Compounding this was the issue that there was only limited sound to accompany the learning of the symbol, rendering the learning less meaningful. Then, the students would wait a week between lessons for their written feedback, which by then had little impact. As Werry states, ‘the time for acting on the feedback may well be in the next lesson, and a week is a very long time in a school’ (2017, p. 3). Quite simply, many of these issues I could pin down to the fact that our usual method of instantaneous audible feedback had been taken away from us, and the students had lost their personalised dialogue, which goes so hand-in-hand with learning music.

I carefully adapted my way of teaching theoretical concepts to make them more engaging by use of body percussion and as many games and quizzes as possible. Whatever room I found myself teaching in, quiz-based learning tools with YouTube integration such as Kahoot.com have allowed me to bring the sound of music into my lessons and help me to see who has understood a concept. I can quickly give formative feedback on the spot. It is no coincidence that, by their nature, lessons that made extended use of quizzes and games and therefore contained a similar level of instant feedback allowed students to progress better than paper-based tasks during theory lessons.

When Chromebooks were introduced, I quickly found that technology could step up to replace some of what had been missing. We use Google Classroom and subscribe to MusicFirst software that integrates wonderfully – Focus on Sound Pro, Soundtrap and Noteflight Learn. All of these programmes allow for the learning of theory to have a practical and instantly audible application.

Focus on Sound in particular gives students instant feedback on what they have understood (or not), and I have witnessed students taking quizzes again and again with enthusiasm in the same way in which they would practise an instrument – taking autonomy over their learning and being spurred on by upping their score. Noteflight Learn has allowed me to create worksheets for students wherein the notes that they see can be heard as well, even if we are in an MFL classroom with no musical equipment. The feedback for them is again instant, as they can hear whether they have the correct or incorrect note, much as they would on their instrument. This software has also meant that my GCSE students have been able to continue to compose during remote learning in a way that has transitioned seamlessly back to the classroom setting, and I have been able to see the progress on this in real time.

By far the most used piece of software in my arsenal has been Soundtrap, a cloud-based digital audio workstation (DAW) similar to GarageBand, with Google Classroom integration. This has allowed my students to use theoretical concepts to compose whilst they have been at home or within school. In addition, by adding in an extra track to their project, I have been able to record verbal feedback for them to listen to and act on in real time, even over a Google Meet, much the same as I would were I wandering around the physical music classroom. One way in which I have used Soundtrap has been to make use of MIDI sounds and the virtual keyboard for students to recreate the layers of a tango piece by copying my guide tracks and recording their own versions. The advantage of this topic being carried out in this way is that the students have consistently had my modelled track to work with and can hear whether they have it correct by instant comparison. Furthermore, we’ve been able to add drum loops and samples to experiment with neotango in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in the music classroom on keyboards. The use of this software has developed students’ skills in music technology whilst forcing the real musical application of the theoretical concepts.

Whilst there is a cost implication for the MusicFirst software, there are also plenty of free websites and online games that I have used to great effect in teaching students to match the sound to the symbol. These allow for the students to have instant feedback, and in many cases for this to get passed back to the teacher too in an easily digestible format so that dialogue remains open. One of the best free websites available at the moment for this purpose is www.musictheory.net, which, as well as lessons in theory concepts, allows for custom exercises to be created and verification codes to be sent back to the teacher for checking. I have used this to help students to quickly recognise notes on staves within Year 5 and to identify intervals and key signatures in GCSE, for example. Virtual instruments abound and are certainly now at a point where they are usable within lessons, particularly with touchscreen technology. Musicca.com has a very user-friendly virtual keyboard and has exercises and games as well. I have used the Musicca virtual piano simultaneously with chordchord.com in order to play and compose four-chord progressions with melodies over the top with students in Year 7, for example, in place of being in my keyboard room.

Certain Google Chrome extensions have been fantastic for music learning. Use of the extension talkandcomment.com has meant that I can record spoken instructions for a task to aid learners with educational needs such as dyslexia, or at any point in a remote lesson, I can record verbal feedback and paste the link in the student’s live document. I’ve made great use of self-marking Google Forms for listening questions across the ages and have more recently discovered Nearpod.com, which allows Slides presentations to be uploaded and challenges and questions to be integrated within it to achieve that similar level of instant feedback. Nearpod also allows students to ‘draw’ on a worksheet, which I can see in real time. All of these tools have allowed me to interact with my students in order to give them formative feedback and empower them to develop that learning autonomy.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic and its multitude of restrictions on the way in which I can teach and my students can learn has compelled me to be a more creative teacher and really reflect on what makes for progression in music. Over the last two terms I have witnessed students make significant progress in what they can understand of music and then being able to use that understanding creatively, talking about it using the correct terminology and developing their skills. We have achieved musical progression despite the pandemic, and technologies have played a pivotal role in the quality of the feedback dialogue of which the students have been part and in personalising their learning journeys. It has pushed me to discover new ways of engaging students with musical theory by incorporating technology into my everyday practice, and I have seen how music technology can be further integrated within my music curriculum going forward.

Certainly I will continue to use Kahoot, musictheory.net, Focus on Sound, Noteflight and Google Forms as part of my curriculum to aid students in becoming more confident with using musical symbols and terms. I plan to keep my tango unit on Soundtrap, as students have made much deeper connections with the notation by having a modelled track to work to, and I am already reworking other keyboard-based topics in that same manner. I have replaced old keyboards with MIDI-compatible ones to work with the Chromebooks. These concepts will remain in my pedagogical toolkit and will serve my students well in becoming more musically and technologically literate throughout their time in my classroom.

References

Booth N (2017) What is formative assessment, why hasn’t it worked in schools, and how can we make it better in the classroom?’ Impact 1: 27–29.

Kinsella V and Fautley M (2020) Giving value to musical creativity. In: Finney J, Philpott C and Spruce G (eds) Creative and Critical Projects in Classroom Music. London: Routledge, pp. 65-76.

Spendlove D (2009) Putting Assessment for Learning Into Practice. United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Academic.

Werry J (2017) Formative assessment and differentiation. Music Teacher. Available at: www.rhinegold.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/MT0817-scheme-KS3_Differentiation.pdf (accessed 17 November 2020).

Wiliam D (@dylanwiliam) (2013) Tweet, 23 October 2013. Available at: https://twitter.com/dylanwiliam/status/393045049337847808 (accessed 22 December 2020).

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