Intensity vs. Effectiveness (BOTH should win!)

So, the most effective and toughest class I took as an undergrad was Japanese. It beats out Advanced Calculus (you know, that class with Multi-V as a pre-req where you study different sizes of infinity) by a long shot for this honor. It was challenging and effective not because I’m bad at picking up languages, but because it met daily and I could never slack.  The class only had 11-12 people in it, and we had to prepare daily conversations. I remember keenly how painful it was to stay caught up when the semester got tough.

My current theory class (“Intensive Music Theory 1”) meets MTWR from 1:30-2:20pm, one day a week fewer than my infamous year of 5-days-a-week Japanese and one day a week more than the other seven sections of Music Theory 1. Remembering how well I learned my Japanese because I was held accountable daily for my work, I decided to give daily homework (3 of them graded P/nP, and one of them graded P/nP/+) and two quizzes a week (on M and thuRsday). It’s pretty intense in terms of accountability for the students, but it has worked. Of my class of 18 (these are the 18 students pursuing a Bachelor of Music who earned the lowest scores on the theory placement exam), I’ve lost one for reasons unrelated to my class, I have one barely hanging on, and 16 doing really great, given their midterm exam grades.

Here’s what I’ve done to try to balance effectiveness with do-ability.

  • `An “I Hate Busy Work” policy.  I indicate on the homework what the minimum amount of work is.  If students feel they need more practice, they should practice more.  If they feel like they’ve got it, they should stop when they’ve done the minimum amount of work.  Students are doing a good job self diagnosing.  Some of the weaker students only make it through the required minimum owing to the speed at which they work, but they’re still getting the concepts at a passable level.
  • a “be utterly predictable” policy.  Summary paragraphs are due on Wednesdays. Nuts-and-Bolts assignments are due on M, T, and R. Quizzes occur on M and R. Podcast information is always quizzed on M. Nuts-and-Bolts homework is always graded by the next class. Students know what to expect and there are no surprises.
  • a “P/nP grading” policy.  I constantly ask myself two questions: Is it good enough? and Are they missing the concept I’m testing?  Sometimes this means truly ugly papers pass and almost perfect papers fail.  But I think focusing on the goal of the assignment is essential to helping students focus their learning.
  • a generous “redo” policy combined with a high-bar for earning a B- in the course (you must pass everything, but you never showed excellence on exams or summary paragraphs) keeps everyone working on fixing fatal flaws in their homeworks.

Overall, I think it’s the right cocktail of policies to keep us all focused on the goal, working effectively, and feeling encouraged!  Looking forward to our final 7 weeks together and to launching these students into a three-day-a-week Music Theory 2 class!

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