In Fall 2013, I taught a four-day-a-week Music Theory 1 class. In this class, I worked with students entering the Bachelors of Music program at Oberlin who had less preparation (or access to preparation) than their peers. This experience was incredibly rewarding.
The students had a great attitude, were not afraid to be wrong, happy to ask “stupid” questions, willing to be put on the spot, open to peer teaching, and interested in pretty much whatever I asked them to do (or at least really good at pretending!).
Music Theory 1 started out with a lot of basic rudiments: key signatures, flavors of minor scales, flavors of triads, flavors of seventh chords, and inversions of those chordal flavors. And, helping students build fluency with core skills was a perfect opportunity to use podcasts.
I assigned podcasts, which I recorded myself, as homework in two contexts: 1) to summarize a topic after I presented it in person, and 2) to introduce students to a topic that I would quiz them on in class the next day. I also implemented two five-minute quizzes a week.
The assessments showed that learning was not dependent on the method of introduction; whether new information was presented through an assigned podcast or through an in-class mini-lecture. I did not use the course management system to track student use of the podcasts, although I perhaps should have done so in order to get a better sense of how often students reviewed class materials.
From this experience, I feel comfortable sharing a short list of strategies for making podcasts effective:
- Brevity is essential. The longest podcast I used was 5 minutes and 20 seconds. If I can’t fit what I want to say into 5 minutes, it’s too complex to be done with out the visual aid of videotaping myself as I annotate concepts on a piece of staff paper. (That extra 20 seconds contained things like “good luck,” “thank you,” and “see you tomorrow!”)
- Hold students accountable for information from the podcasts. Five-minute quizzes at the beginning of class on basic skills (add accidentals to these triads, label that seventh chord) encourage students to learn the information in the podcasts before I presented it during class.
- Remind students that listening is usually passive. If they are struggling with material, they need to take notes while they listen.
- When possible, connecting student listening to images (from websites or from a scanned handout) helps to facilitate learning.
Recommended links for teaching the rudiments of music: