Composing a class (3/4: Delivery and activities)

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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.

In the previous post, I discussed laying out the schedule, with an emphasis on scaffolding and feedback. In this post, I discuss delivery methods and activities.

Content delivery

One way to deliver course content is the traditional lecture. I don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong with lectures. But you better be damn good at it, if this is your primary teaching method. Paying attention to someone speaking for an hour (or three) is difficult. And this type of learning isn’t always the best for people.

I’m sure you’ve heard of “visual learners,” “kinesthetic learners,” etc. These “learning styles” are a misunderstanding of Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligences” concept. Gardner’s concept is mainly about affinities for different functions (artists have high visual intelligence, athletes high kinesthetic intelligence). So it’s not as if a person can only learn in one way.

Still, I think the key is using a bit of everything. So have good visual aids. Break out into discussion groups. Have one-on-one chats with students. Give students low-stakes tasks to try. Play games. Show YouTube clips. Having variety will keep your students (and their teacher) awake and engaged.

Example

In my Fundamentals of Audio course, I included relatively brief lectures with slide decks that emphasized visuals over words. I purposefully made these decks so they would be good visual aids, not replacements for notes. (Read about “Slideuments,” which I think should be avoided!)

The students also had readings to further clarify the topic, as someone else may explain things better than I can. They also had media to watch/listen that would reiterate concepts they learned. For anyone teaching audio, music, or media, actually experiencing audio, music, or media should be part of every course, no?

Experiential learning

We learn best by doing. Experiential learning is another education buzzword that often describes learning outside the classroom. Internships, independent projects, etc. However, you can (and should) include as much experiential learning as your subject allows. For music and art, this should be a no-brainer. 

Remember also that feedback–in this case, we might call it “coaching”–is crucial to learning. Many students expect tasks to have step-by-step instructions. They want to finish the task and move on. You might give students more minimal instruction to see what they can figure out (you trickster, you). But then you need to let them know that this is part of the challenge, not something you forgot. 

Example

A recent class that went well for me was an online, asynchronous class. I focused on mixing in different genres. We tackled: Classical, Jazz, Acoustic/Folk, Rock, R&B, and Hip-Hop. 

Each week, students did the following:

  • Read 2 interviews with engineers known for the weeks’ genre
  • Write a ~300-word response about the interviews
  • Listen to 4-5 selections in the week’s genre
  • Participate in a message board commenting on these selections
  • Create a mix based on pre-supplied tracks
  • Trade mixes with a partner and peer-critique
  • Submit a final mix

Each week I needed to devote an evening to reading and commenting on the written responses, and another on the mixes. When thinking about the class afterward, I began to think that it might be better to have a feedback loop on the mixes before the final “grade.” I offered a chance to redo any project to raise the grade, and no one took me up on it. I’m sure the students would have performed better if I gave some initial feedback, then they improved the mix and submitted it “for real.”

Unfortunately, this internal feedback loop was not feasible in the timeframe. I tried to implement the peer-critique in between my critiques, but there was not enough time for that either. Still, students reacted positively to the feedback and gradually improved their listening and mixing skills, even as we dived into different styles. A number of them told me that they enjoyed the class and approach, primarily because I gave such detailed feedback (more on this in the next post).

Conclusion

What I think this class shows is that an experiential learning approach, where students have to figure out a lot on their own, can be beneficial. The difference is where the teacher allocates their time. In the example class, I created brief 15-20 minute videos to explain “how to get started with this week’s mix.” I could have created 90-minute lectures covering exactly how to do everything, but I wanted them to figure things out on their own. To me, that meant the time I might use preparing a longer lecture should be reserved for feedback. And it paid off–most students showed improvement and noted that they felt more comfort with effects processing and the workflow of mixing.

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Welcome and thanks for checking out my work! -adam

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