Students Learn Best When They Can Learn from Each Other

Three words – “Teach Yo Self”

One of my all-time favorite television shows is Parks and Recreation.  I found that this is also a favorite among many of my students who “binge watch” it on Netflix or Hulu.  In this show, there are episodes where Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) and Donna Meagle (Retta) go on special shopping holidays they call “Treat Yo Self.”  I cannot do the comedy justice in explaining it, so I will let Aziz Ansari explain it with this video.  While the cast of characters of this television show enjoy a day of shopping, my students love “Teach Yo Self” days in honor of the show.  No, there is no shopping, but there is teaching and learning here.  What the students enjoy about these classes is the opportunity to run the class and teach each other in planned activities.

One of the activities we do on these days is adapted from K-12 writing curriculum called Four-Square activities. Four-square activities help students see a larger picture surrounding the music we are studying, whether it be classical or popular music.  Here is a diagram of the K-12 version of the Four Square Method used for writing.

Four-Square activities

In my classroom, however, we begin with a piece of music as our “Topic” in the center.  Then, the students form groups and fill in the other four squares with factors that may have influenced the music’s creation such as previous musical styles, the music industry, recording techniques, and especially social and cultural factors such as race, gender, or economic factors.  This way, my diagram of a Four-Square method for teaching music history looks like this:

Four-Square activities

The students as a group choose the angle from which they will analyze the piece before the Four Square class day.  They then come to class on Four Square day with notes relating to the topic of their “square.”  This activity can run anywhere from 15 minutes to an entire class period.  At the end of the group discussion time during class, one member of each group is chosen to teach the rest of the class about their findings.  This method is convenient because it has some of the benefits of a Jigsaw classroom, but only needs one class period and less preparation time. The students in the other groups know that they should pay attention and take notes because I often build essay questions on exams based on the work that was done in the Four Square activities.  In the end, this is a wonderful way to provide music in the context of a “thick description,” an interpretive theory of culture first described by Clifford Geertz in his collection of essays, The Interpretation of Cultures (1973).

I have found that since I began this activity, students have been able to not only describe a piece of music for its musical features, but also put them into larger contexts of style, genre, and culture.

Another activity students can do as they lead a class session is what I call a Song Comparison project.  I use this activity primarily in my popular music history classes.  In this optional activity, I ask students to bring in music that they like or have been listening to lately that has some musical feature in common with one of the more historic songs they have learned about in class.  The students enjoy this activity because it creates a sense of community and helps them explore their own musical tastes and knowledge.  While millennial students today may not jump at the chance to listen to Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susannah,” with all of its verses, they do better understand the context of a song like this being performed in a minstrel show when one of their classmates does a demonstration where they compare the song to Lupe Fiasco’s “Bitch Bad.”  These types of student-led demonstrations help the other students in the class form opinions and discuss them openly without too much of my interference or guidance.  In the case of this comparison made by a team of two students, the other members of the class learned to question ideas of cultural (mis)appropriation, racism, and misogyny in music, not only of the 19th century, but also the 21st century as well.

Finally, some of my most treasured days in the classroom are those in which the students perform for the class.  In these activities, students with particular abilities, such as playing a historical instrument, or playing an instrument or singing in a style from a non-Western culture are chosen to perform.  These performance-related activities are scheduled by me, but the students pay attention to what another student is teaching them.  They have told me in course evaluations how much they appreciate getting to know other students in this way and discovering their talents.

When students teach students, they take more initiative and responsibility for their learning by participating in these activities, and are therefore more likely to become life-long learners.

Cameron Welke, demonstration of Renaissance lute to first-year students

Renaissance lute performance practice given by a Belmont classical guitar performance major, Cameron Welke, for a class of transfer and first-year students who are new to music history curriculum.

Just as Tom and Donna enjoyed their Pawnee, Indiana shopping sprees, my students have also reveled in the chance to explore ideas on their own and learn from each other.  Allowing students more opportunities to teach and learn for themselves in the classroom helps reinforce their understanding that this is a student-centered university.  One of the first things I write in my syllabi under “Student Learning Goals” is the phrase “Students learn best when they can learn from each other.” I strongly believe in that statement because I have seen dramatic improvements in student essays, more retained information when students move on to take other music history courses, and general enthusiasm with better classroom behavior. Discussing goals with other students in a Four Square activity, having class discussions after students give Song Comparison demonstrations, and watching student performances creates a fruitful learning environment where students feel they are part of a community.  When students teach students, they take more initiative and responsibility for their learning by participating in these activities, and are therefore more likely to become life-long learners.  I would recommend to any teacher of music history of music appreciation to get to know their students, discover their hidden talents, watch them closely in group interactions, and then try out some of these activities in their own classrooms.

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Virginia Lamothe
This post is by Virginia Christy Lamothe, a musicologist and Lecturer at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. She teaches courses in the history of classical and popular music. Her research focuses include teaching practices of higher education, music of the seventeenth century, and Tin Pan Alley and theater at the turn of the twentieth century.

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