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Music, Performing Arts and Rosenshine: Check for student understanding

Catherine Barker

16 May 2019
  • How can you be confident that all students in your class have made progress with their skills and understanding during each lesson?
  • How often do you ask students to explain their process and justify decisions that they have made during a creative task?
  • Is understanding checked regularly throughout lessons/schemes, or is this left to the end?
  • Do you cultivate a learning culture in which students feel secure to ask for help or support?

Hopefully this idea isn’t too radical: in a music lesson, the best way to ensure that students are making musical progress in any lesson is to ensure that they are participating in plenty of music-making. You would expect to hear and see students playing, singing or composing (or a combination of these disciplines) actively in every lesson, even one where the main objective is to learn about a particular style, genre or musical concept. This is because it is through direct application of skills that deep knowledge can be embedded and demonstrated in a mode that is authentic to the language of the classroom. Better musicians are better at listening to music, and better listeners can more accurately use the terminology that they have been taught.

Asking plenty of questions is part of checking student understanding. Combining the ‘What’ questions with ‘Show me/Play/Sing’ again helps to develop understanding in an authentic way.

“What is an ostinato? It’s a repeated rhythm” is a very different question/answer to “Play an ostinato – student claps two bar repeated rhythm in 2/4.” Or “Which instrument is playing an ostinato?”. Another example: ‘What is a Perfect 5th?’ ‘It is an interval five notes apart, of the diatonic scale, or 7 semitones’ is very different to ‘Sing a 5th’ , which would sound like the opening trumpet theme of Also Sprach Zarathustra by Strauss, known more commonly as the start of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Expecting students to recall core knowledge is an important part of checking whether they have learnt the main course content, for example low stakes quizzing from a knowledge organiser, but it is only part of the journey to ‘knowing about’ music. A careful combination of direct recall and application questions gives a more holistic picture of student progress.

Any teacher in an arts subject is likely to teach large numbers of students over a week (or fortnight for schools with a two-week timetable). You will potentially teach every student in the school, at some point, which is a privileged position to be in. However, the downside to this is that keeping track of students is much more challenging: remembering their progress and levels of applied understanding from lesson to lesson can be supported effectively by making use of video or audio recordings that you can refer to when planning for subsequent lessons.

Students can also self-assess through an ‘exit ticket’, telling you directly what they have mastered and what they need to work on next (set this up carefully to ensure honest responses!). By reflecting on their own process during a lesson this will also support their learning. Keeping notes on classes (these were always referred to as ‘jottings’ during teacher training), can also be entered into class feedback sheets and/or inform planning.

There is a place for written work in the demonstration of progress and understanding, certainly in KS4 but also KS3. However, take care that this doesn’t interrupt the acquisition of practical skills. Progress in the arts must also be demonstrated practically, seen and heard.

Share how you check for student understanding – tweet @United_Music1 with your ideas