Composing a class (2/4: Creating the structure)

empty classroom

In this series, I’m exploring how to “compose” a class. This may be redundant for experienced educators. But if you’re a grad student or new adjunct professor, hopefully these thoughts will be useful.

One way to compose a class is to find a good textbook and follow its structure. In fact, the school where you are teaching might require a certain textbook. For a 4-semester music theory sequence, the department probably doesn’t want students to jump from book to book.

Let’s pretend you have some flexibility to choose a textbook. Or maybe no textbook at all! You still need to think about the order of material. Sometimes you might prefer to go in a different order than the text.

Scaffolding

When determining the order of content, think about what builds on what. Think about the overall course objectives and skills that students should attain. Are there fundamental concepts that need to be drilled at the beginning? Maybe you need to spend more time there. Maybe you can cover these simple skills quickly, but refer back to them often. 

Scaffolding is a popular term in teaching. It means building skills that support new, upcoming skills. A good textbook will have the scaffolding built in. But as a teacher, you need to guide the construction of the scaffolds.

For example, in an audio class, you want your students to be pretty good at importing and exporting files, and doing basic changes like volume faders and panning knobs, before moving onto effects like EQ and compression. You might teach volume automation before teaching compression (an automatic volume adjustment). This helps students see that compression can be a time-saver. It also reinforces, conceptually, how compression works. 

In literature/history classes, it makes sense to go in chronological order. But is there a different way you can organize things? Could you pick a seminal piece (whatever that means to you) and work backward and forward from it? Could you separate discussions into genres or regions? What narratives do you want to demonstrate, or deconstruct?

Feedback loops

When scaffolding, you also need checkpoints to let a student know how they are progressing. “Feedback loops” is a popular buzzword in product development, and it applies well to education. A loop would be something like: instruction (teacher to student), task (student to teacher), feedback (teacher to student). Ideally, the feedback will affirm what the student did right, and support their growth in weak areas. Then the next loop begins. 

Assessing skills and knowledge only on midterms and finals is unfair to the students. Homework, practice tests, and projects can serve as these midpoint assessments–so long as you take the time to give feedback.

Example

For my Fundamentals of Audio class, I combined lecture/discussion periods with group and individual “lab” activities. The first lab activity was a group “sound walk” to experience the acoustics of different spaces. The second lab was an individual assignment in Adobe Audition–generate wave forms, import sound files, etc. 

Students also had readings and quizzes that reinforced what we did in class. I tried not to make these readings/listenings redundant. After the soundwalk, they watched a video about an anechoic chamber. When we discussed harmonics, they watched a demonstration of overtone singing. This way they received information in different forms. Quizzes primarily made sure they paid attention–the quizzes accounted for a very small proportion of the grade.

Finally, students had four projects over the term: an individual sound walk, a drum loop using household instruments, a creative sound collage with samples and self-recorded sounds, and a mix of pre-supplied tracks. The projects were generally quite good, showing that this plan successfully scaffolded most of the students (the majority of whom were majoring in media arts and design, not audio).

Final thoughts

I work with students on research proposals as part of my “day” job. One thing I’m always advising is “consider the rhythms of the semester.” As a teacher, you should be mindful of this, too. Help yourself by staggering when you need to grade. When do you have events, travel, your own deadlines? Factor those in. Stick with your late work policies–deadlines fall when they fall, and you have already set aside time that week to grade. Figure out this puzzle ahead of time, and you’ll be a lot happier.

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Welcome and thanks for checking out my work! -adam

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