Music Theory Gamification

Berry photoWhitney Berry, PH.D., discusses her cutting edge approach to music theory gamification – “Theory Survivor.”

Connect For Education (C4E): What is your music background and education?

Whitney Berry: I have an undergraduate degree in music education, a Master’s degree in music composition and a Ph.D in music education.

C4E: What are your main areas of interest in music?

Whitney Berry: I am a composer of choral music and teach in the areas of music theory and aural skills. I am most interested in music theory pedagogy at the college level.

C4E: Briefly describe what you do with your Theory Survivor approach?

Whitney Berry: Theory Survivor is a game loosely based on the Survivor reality TV show. Students are assigned to “tribes” (collaborative working groups) and complete daily timed drill challenges for points toward a “fabulous prize” at the end. It serves the purpose of drilling basic concepts of music fundamentals (note names, scales, chords, etc.) so that students gain fluency with this material. The game simply makes this task more engaging for students.

I didn’t set out to gamify the class really, I just wanted an idea that would make a boring subject and boring tasks more enjoyable and memorable.

C4E: How is this course usually taught? What is/are the typical pedagogical method(s)?

Whitney Berry: At other institutions, Music Theory is typically taught using a traditional lecture-based approach. Students attend lectures, complete homework assignments on the material and then are assessed by means of quizzes and tests. Although this approach is efficient in terms of content delivery, recent research has shown that it is not necessarily effective in producing student learning.

C4E: What are the biggest challenges with that approach?

Whitney Berry: The biggest challenge with a traditional lecture approach is with student accountability and timely feedback. Students need to gain fluency with the material, be held accountable for their learning and receive immediate feedback on their work. The traditional set up of a lecture based course does not allow for either of these.

shutterstock_191232959C4E: How did you come up with the game based approach you use?

Whitney Berry: I honestly tried it on a whim one year and it was so successful that I’ve done it ever since. My original idea came out of a desire to do in-class practice because it was my instinct that it was what students needed to really assimilate the material. Students did not come in to the course fully understanding fundamental concepts and I thought that in-class drill practice would help. By the way, “Theory Survivor” wasn’t my first choice for a game concept. My original idea was “Theory Boot Camp.” I’m really glad I didn’t go with that one!

C4E: What are your sources and influences for incorporating the Music Theory Survivor approach?

Whitney Berry: I really love games and think that people learn best when they are relaxed and having fun. I also think that a little light-hearted competition keeps people engaged and promotes teamwork. I didn’t set out to gamify the class really, I just wanted an idea that would make a boring subject and boring tasks more enjoyable and memorable.

C4E: What were your biggest concerns/fears when you tried this approach for the first time?

Whitney Berry: My biggest concern was that students would hate it and it wouldn’t work. Luckily they went for it and loved every minute.

C4E: How has this impacted your classroom (in terms of classroom management)?

Whitney Berry: The game is the easiest thing in the world to manage. It puts the focus on the students and holds them accountable for their learning. I put a lot of work outside of class into setting up the daily routines for the game and what the in-class challenges will be, but most of my in-class time is spend wandering around observing students, answering questions and drinking coffee.

C4E: What was the overall response to this approach from students?

Whitney Berry: Most students love it because there is something in it for every ability level. Weaker students end up receiving peer tutoring from their tribe members and stronger students find a challenge in getting faster at the challenges and receiving high scores. The response is overwhelmingly positive.

In general, I feel that this approach helps my students gain a greater fluency with the material, which helps them later on in the course.

C4E: Were any students resistant? If so – How did you set them at ease?

Whitney Berry: I always worry about weaker students feeling pressure to contribute to the tribe and being admonished if they do not perform at the same level as their peers. I suppose the pressure is there, but I believe it is largely positive. I have seen far more supportive interactions between tribes and their weaker members than negative ones. All of the tribes are set up heterogeneously based on a pre-test, so they all have high, middle and low achieving students. Also, the outcome of the game does not affect students’ grades at all. They are competing for an extrinsic “fabulous prize” only and I remind them of that frequently. Having said that, it is true that doing well in Theory Survivor helps students do well in the course because it means that they fully understand and are fluent with the material. I remind students of this as well and encourage them to try to do well for this reason.

C4E: How has this approach benefited your students?  Can you give some real examples or stories about how this approach had a positive impact on learning with specific students?

Whitney Berry: In general, I feel that this approach helps my students gain a greater fluency with the material, which helps them later on in the course. Music theory has a component of language acquisition to it. Students can not be at the level of sounding out words when they are asked to write a paper. This is essentially what Theory Survivor helps with. It gets them to the point of fluency faster and enables them to use the nomenclature of the discipline on more advanced concepts.

I think that it most benefits low to middle achieving students as it provides them with a means to achieve this fluency while operating within the context of a supportive peer group (which is particularly important with first semester students). The competitive aspect also encourages group cohesion and cooperative learning. All tribe members are working toward a common goal and it benefits the tribe as a whole to do what they can to encourage all members to achieve at their individual best.

I do have a story about this aspect that I can share. I once observed a tribe leader take time to explain a concept to a student in her tribe who was struggling. The tribe stopped their challenge to help this member and then moved on when she understood. I never expect tribe leaders to act in this capacity, but of course, I am appreciative when it happens naturally. After class I complimented the leader for doing this and let her know that it was appreciated but not expected. When I asked her why she took the time to help the student like she did, she said to me simply, “Well, that’s how we’re going to win.” I thought this was quite profound and very true on many levels.Team workC4E: How do you handle teams?

Whitney Berry: The tribes are set up by means of a pre-test before the games starts. They are heterogeneous, consisting of a similar combination high, middle and low scoring students. The student with the highest score on the pretest in each tribe is designated as the leader and has administrative responsibilities within the tribe.

C4E: How do you handle Lessons?

Whitney Berry: Typically, each new topic is introduced by a short mini-lecture on the topic, followed by in-class untimed practice. Students will then do a homework assignment on the topic, check their answers (answer keys are posted on Blackboard) and arrive the next class day ready to do a timed challenge on the material.

C4E: How do you handle Assessments?

Whitney Berry: The in-class challenges act as informal assessments as students complete them, check their answers and come up with an individual score for each one. These do not count toward their grade, however, just their tribe’s score in the game. Course assessment is done by surprise quizzes and planned unit tests.

C4E: How do students respond to open competition?

Whitney Berry: Generally really well. They look forward to seeing the online scoreboard and seeing how their tribe ranks compared to others. They also kind of get into the competitive aspect by teasing other tribes in a good-natured way, especially when the scores are close. I think the fact that the game does not count toward their grade in any way really helps with this. I think it would be less fun if students were somehow worried about their grade being influenced or brought down by other people.

C4E: What about the shy students who like to observe more than participate?

Whitney Berry: No one observes in Theory Survivor. Everyone has to participate in the in-class challenges and the tribe’s score is determined by an average of individual scores. Even if students aren’t really “into” the competition, they still participate in the challenges and receive the practice they need to do well in the class. Students can participate in Theory Survivor on a variety of levels, which is also why it works so well.

music-1010703_1920C4E: What pedagogical advantages do you see in this approach?

Whitney Berry: As mentioned above, the academic advantages center around gaining fluency with the nomenclature of the discipline. The challenges allow repetitive practice and tighten the feedback loop by providing immediate feedback by means of an answer key. Students know immediately if they are doing the exercises correctly and can adjust if they are not. From an instructional standpoint, it also deals with the problem of varying degrees of prior knowledge, which is a huge one in this course. This method helps students fill in any gaps in their knowledge of music fundamentals and gets everyone up to the same level of understanding and skill very efficiently and effectively.

From a social/emotional perspective, the tribes provide supportive peer groups which is a huge advantage for first semester freshmen in particular. Students entering this course are new to college and the demands of being a music major, and often away from home for the first time. These can be huge factors in student attrition, in particular during that first semester. This pedagogical method provides a support system for these students, which has a huge influence on their academic progress and likelihood of continuing in the major.

My retention rates are consistently higher than those of the university at large and also higher than other music theory courses in the region.

C4E: Can you envision doing something similar with a music appreciation or a survey course for non-music majors? How?

Whitney Berry: I’m sure it could be adapted for use in other courses and disciplines. It does work best for material with only one correct answer, so that students can check answers against a key and get immediate feedback. However, if you just wanted the team competition aspect of it, you could use other things (quizzes, other in-class assessments) for determining scores.

C4E: How would you advise other instructors in getting started with this approach? Folks who are interested, but do not have experience with it, or gaming theory?

Whitney Berry: Read all you can about gamification and talk to people who have done it. People with experience can help you troubleshoot many of the initial problems you may encounter and help you be successful.

C4E: Could something like this be done in a fully online course? How?

Whitney Berry: I’m not sure. I suppose it could be adapted, but I’d have to think about it more carefully. The only reason I hesitate to say yes is that so many of the positive interactions that take place in the game are in the face to face time that the tribes spend together. I’m not sure if that could be fully recreated in an online environment, but it would be interesting to explore.

C4E: What kind of support did you have from your administration? Both in music specifically, and in the broad setting of the University of North Dakota?

Whitney Berry: The administration of the music department fully supports this strategy as they have seen the results it produces in terms of both content knowledge and student retention. My retention rates are consistently higher than those of the university at large and also higher than other music theory courses in the region. At the college level, this method is also supported, as it is an example of the type of high impact educational practices that both the college and university as a whole encourage.

C4E: Was there any resistance or skepticism that you dealt with from peers or colleagues?

Whitney Berry: In my department, I am known as the “fun one.” I choose to take it as a compliment, and it is largely intended that way. However, I do know that the perception exists among other faculty that “fun” must not equal “learning.” I think that the more that we learn about gamification in education and other areas, the more universally accepted practices like this will be. Right now, doing a large-scale game like this is still a bit on the fringe, but I honestly like it that way. I am confident that what I am doing is pedagogically sound; that it also happens to be extremely fun and engaging is a great side benefit.

C4E: Do you have colleagues (in any discipline) that have implemented or applied game concepts to the learning environment?

Whitney Berry: I know of several faculty who have implemented game elements in their classes but none that have done a larger scale game like Theory Survivor.

C4E: What new concepts are you currently working on?

Whitney Berry: I am currently working on adapting active learning pedagogy and game elements to a large enrollment Fundamentals of Music course. I’m in the very early stages of development, but I will be happy to share my experience in the future.

C4E: So what IS the “fabulous prize?”

Whitney Berry: Custom Theory Survivor T-shirts!

tug of war banner

For more information on Dr. Berry’s Theory Survivor approach Click Here!


Theory Survivor WinnersLecture is the approach traditionally used to teach music theory courses. Although efficient in the delivery of large amounts of information in a short period of time, lecture lacks the effectiveness of an active learning approach. “Theory Survivor” is a unique cooperative-learning method based on the Student Teams-Achievement Divisions technique created by Robert Slavin. It combines the efficiency of lecture with the effectiveness of active learning. Using the motivational forces of group cohesion, extrinsic rewards, and positive peer pressure to its advantage, Theory Survivor provides a rich educational environment in which students thrive.


Lety Cuevas


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