Acquiring Basic Skills

Do you remember those timed multiplication table tests in elementary school?  The kind where you do the 2s, and then the 3s, all the way through the 9s.  You earned a start on a public chart when you mastered each flavor of multiplication, and mastery was defined by getting a specific number of answers correct within a strict time period (1 minute is what I remember).  Even though today it seems somewhat old-fashioned and a mite-bit draconian, it worked.  It worked. As I’m teaching the first semester of a four-semester course, there are certain parallels with basic knowledge acquisition. So, I’ve been experimenting a bit with this old fashioned model.

Rather than multiplication tables, there are three skills that my aural skills students need to acquire, preferably quickly, so that these skills become a help instead of a hindrance.  (1) conducting, (2) singing on fixed-do solfége, and (3) singing on scale degrees.  None of these are rocket science.  All of them can be seen as annoying.  All can be acquired by practicing each for 5 minutes a day, 7 days in a row.  All are going to be used for 2-to-3 additional semesters. I’ve become pretty adept at explaining why we teach them, why I buy into them, and why I think my students should buy into them.  And, by the end of the semester, my students are adequate at these skills.  Well… more accurately: some are great; some are barely adequate; and most are adequate.  Clearly, I think that there’s massive room for improvement in the level of literacy my students acquire in these skills.

So, this semester, inspired by memories of my entire 3rd grade class knowing their times tables, I’m trying a modified version of a criterion-based grading system.  (Kris Schafer has written eloquently on this concept here.)  I’ve called it the “Fundamentals Assignment.”  There’s no public chart for star stickers to adorn, but it will impact students’ grades for the semester.

There are three fundamentals (the same as I listed above).  And one task for each fundamental.  They have unlimited attempts to pass, and they don’t have to pass all three tasks at the same time. Each is worth 4% of their semester’s grade.  If they pass within the first three weeks of classes, they get 4/4 points; by Fall break 3/4; by Thanksgiving 2/4; and by the end of the semester 1/4. We’re about to enter the third week of classes, so I’m curious how many students will strive to finish them all this week.

I already see many ways to make this assignment better (and many ways to clarify my directions).  So, I’m committed to trying this out again the next time I teach Aural Skills 1.

It’s my hope that by making an assignment about fluency, my students will focus harder and earlier on the fundamental skills.  I’m also hoping that they will commit to gaining fluency with more intentionality than in previous semesters.

It seems to me that this type of assignment would transfer well to many disciplines. I’m curious to hear about other experiments or thoughts, if you know of any.

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Post-Course Evaluation (19 Dec 2012)

It was a good exercise to identify these fundamentals that simply had to be addressed. But, it was not a good choice to make it worth so much of their semester’s grade (12%) and to award different amounts of points based on when they were completed. I decided to give students who hadn’t officially completed these fundamentals the “done by Thanksgiving” partial credit without having them into the office. They definitely had these skills by Week 10 of the class and it was a waste of everyone’s time to have them come to the office.

What I think I should do in the future is fold this activity into their Week 3 (or week 4) appointments, holding them all accountable at that time for these fundamentals.

3 thoughts on “Acquiring Basic Skills

  1. You are not helping my grading as I like reading your posts. Question though – is 1/4 really passing? What about those that just take a little longer to learn? Maybe it is just a matter of work ethic…or do you think there are a subset of students that just cruise and another that really have to prioritize. I see rewarding the prioritizes…not quite sure about penalizing the procrastinators…if they seemingly could have a good reason. of course, on occasion, I still add stickers with happy faces or the “good job.” Students like that so I think there are a number of parallels between intro courses and 3rd grade 😉

    • I really did consider stickers for a while… College students seem to like those kinds of throw-backs. If a student was honestly working at it five minutes a day, seven days a week, I would totally give them an extension for the full or partial credit. I don’t want good work ethic to be punished or frustrated. 1/4 isn’t passing. They pass on the skills, but get penalized for taking so long (presumably for procrastination or carelessness). As I write that, it bothers me a bit. BUT the purpose was to get them to prioritize these skills as early as possible and to set up some sort of grading schema to accomplish that prioritization. And, if there’s a lot of them that are putting it off to the point of getting 1/4 points, we’ll definitely need to have a conversation (probably class-wide) about what’s going on. It’s quite an experiment… I’ll know a little more about how I feel about it by the end of this week. Thanks for the comments. 🙂

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