Providing Feedback Opportunities
“If [students] want to be taken seriously as musicians, they need to have a solid understanding of the foundations” – Dr. Joelle Welling
Dr. Joelle Welling is a Senior Instructor in the Department of Music in the School of Creative and Performing Arts at the University of Calgary. She teaches several courses in Music Theory, including the two introductory courses, MUSI 211 and 213, which act as a full-year course for students in their first year of the music program.
Dr. Welling describes studying music theory as a combination of learning a language and learning math. Her courses focus on the basic “nuts and bolts” of classical music: patterns, norms and traditional structure. Although all of the students who want to take the course are required to pass a diagnostic exam before enrolling, there is a wide range of experience. Some students just barely meet the minimum requirements, while others have worked with music theory for years. Dr. Welling’s goal for the course is to bring all of the students to an equal level of fluency and ability with the content. One way she does this is by giving many assignments and timed quizzes throughout the semester, giving students ample opportunities for practicing their skills.
Students are given upwards of twenty assignments per semester. Dr. Welling designs them so that they are straightforward in format and can be completed in a fairly short period of time. There is always one class period in between when the assignment is given and when it is due, to account for major issues or problems that students may have. Dr. Welling and her teaching assistant grade the assignments immediately, so that students can get their results and feedback before the next one is due. This helps students to see where they are struggling and ask for help or put extra time into those areas. Assignments focus on the basic rudiments of music, as well as part writing and analysis. Students are asked to realize figured-bass patterns and harmonize melodies by adding in missing voices in a four-part texture, label chord progressions and key signatures, and sometimes answer questions about the piece. Part writing tends to be more challenging than analysis, so Dr. Welling often gives more assignments that focus on it, so that students get more practice with it.
Another way that Dr. Welling ensures that students are consistently getting opportunities to practice and refine their skills are weekly three-minute quizzes. Grades on the quizzes are initially very low. They are a good challenge and often equalize all of the students in the class. Even highly experienced students with a strong music theory background struggle with the time limit. There is an upward trend in quiz performance as the semester progresses. Once students all start to get higher grades on the quizzes, Dr. Welling increases the difficulty by reducing the time or asking more challenging questions. The purpose of the quizzes is to solidify the fluency with chords and key signatures. “I want the students to be able to know these things cold. They need to be completely fluent in the basics so they can focus on the more challenging parts later,” she says. She notes that the quizzes have almost no impact on the overall course grades, but having the grade associated with it helps with motivate the students to do well.
Dr. Welling admits that at first, students are very uneasy about the large number of assignments and quizzes, but by the end of the course, they appreciate all of the opportunities to practice and work with the course material. She says that it is a lot of work and effort to grade so many assignments, but it is worthwhile to help her students learn. She also likes that while she is giving her students constant feedback, the assignments are providing her with feedback too. She is able to keep track of where students are struggling and where they are excelling.
MUSI 211/213 are important foundations for all of the future music theory and composition courses that the students will take during the program. The same type of assessment methods used in her courses are used in second and third year music theory classes as well, so as students start working with more challenging pieces of music, they are still used to how to approach and analyze them.