Assessing Student Learning
During the course of these lessons, I used a combination of formal and informal assessment. In the beginning, much of my assessment happened through verbal questions and answers. I found that this was effective at finding out if the students were able to apply the knowledge I gave them. For example, during the lesson on pre-composition maps, my verbal questions effectively gauged that the students could spot the differences between the A and B section in a visual map. I received a variety of answers that related to the difference in the green, solid line (the A section) and the red, dotted line (the B section). When students gave an incorrect or off-topic answer, I was often able to guide them towards the correct answer by reshaping the question or giving them a nudge with more information. In many cases, I found that I simply needed to adjust the way I was asking a question in order to help students find the answers. However, in some cases, such as in the case of the visual map, I eventually filled in gaps that the students missed in their answers.
In middle school, not all students are eager to raise their hand and share their knowledge. Many students even fear answering because of the danger of showing that they do not know something. For this reason, I used informal, formative assessment through visual cues to receive a variety of answers from more students. I often used this after explaining a concept, such as when I explained directions for the project and asked students to signal with their thumb if they understood. This visual cue allowed me to know if students were grasping the concept, still a little confused, or feeling very lost. By a simple show of thumbs (up, side ways, or down), I could evaluate student learning and redirect my teaching.
Throughout the three lessons, I gave students several opportunities to submit their work. When students submitted the first piece of work (their original melody, the B section of the composition) and their second piece of work (their pre-composition map worksheets), I used ungraded, formative assessment to assist their creative process. For example, a handful of students forgot to include clefs, key signatures, or time signatures with their melodies. While I could often understand these un-written features through context clues and my familiarity with the students, I defended the need for clarity in their writing. Thus, I wrote many comments to the students on their melodies as reminders for qualities to include in their final compositions. Some students needed similar reminders, such as the reminder to be steadfast in counting total beats per measure. I helped others to improve their notation by referring back to earlier lessons. (We talked about stem direction with the pneumonic devices “dill pickle” [or “d” and “p,” the correct directions for stems] and “quarter back” [or “q” and “b,” the incorrect direction for stems]). Using qualitative assessment in these instances, rather than assigning stringent grades, allowed me to guide students in this early stage of their project rather than stamp out creativity in its infancy. It also allowed me to make comments about the aesthetic value of some melodies, which is difficult to appreciate and appraise in a numerical grade.
In the third lesson, I introduced the rubric or checklist by which I intended to give the students a summative, formal grade for their finished projects. First, I gave each student a copy of the checklist. Next, I had the students analyze my musical examples using the items on the checklist. My examples included many of the mistakes I witnessed in their melodies or mistakes I anticipated after helping the students during their in-class composition time. Finally, I had the students apply the same process of using this checklist to analyze the work of a peer who performed his piece in class. This gave the students a first-hand experience of my expectations for the project and an idea of what various grades might look like. By emphasizing the parameters in this way, I found that many students followed the directions more closely than on previous composition assignments. After students saw these examples, it seems that many students understood the expectations of the grading. As I graded the final projects using this checklist, I found that many students limited their final melodies to six measures, kept the A sections the same, and remembered features such as clef, key, and time signature. As a result, the final grades of the final projects were much higher than I had anticipated after seeing the first piece of work in this project. What is more, many of the projects feature very aesthetically pleasing melodies in the B section of the piece.