Definition of assessment
- the action or an instance of making a judgment about something : the act of assessing something : appraisal assessment of damages an assessment of the president's achievements
Learning is a continuous cycle of teacher instruction and/or student exploration, followed by students practicing and applying their new knowledge. The third step is assessment, where the teacher (or the students themselves) decide on the quality of the work and understanding. This assessment then informs the next step of instruction, so that it can be tailored to the needs of the student with feedback and next steps. The quicker we can cycle through this feedback loop, the more we can differentiate the instruction and improve student learning.
The most important form of assessment then is the informal assessment that happens nearly constantly in the music classroom. If I say, "Echo me," and then sing a pattern, that is a short set of instructions, which the students immediately try to put into practice by repeating my pattern. By listening to their performance, I can gauge how well the class is matching pitch, their dynamic level, and clarity of diction. By watching them, I can see if a child is not sitting/standing with good posture, is distracted, etc. All of this information is processed immediately, and informs the next echo that I sing. For example, if we aren't getting into our upper register, I might abandon song patterns and try sighs/sirens instead, and have a short discussion about stretching our range.
Experienced music teachers at all levels are experts at this form of immediate feedback. However, we are often overwhelmed with providing quality feedback to all of our students on a regular basis. This is why ensemble directors push for solo or small group lessons, and why elementary teachers will set up student-driven "stations" to keep most of the class learning and occupied while they focus on a small group.
One tool that can really help us decide which students are in most need of our attention is some form of documented assessment. Documentation allows us to spend more time preparing between classes for using our time wisely with all of our students. Below is a short list of documented assessments that I have found useful in my career.
There are many ways to get students to compose. Rhythm patterns can be made with manipulatives, such as rhythm cards (free template), drawn on whiteboards or paper, or created with technology. Melodies can be created with pennies/dots on staves, or again drawn with paper or technology. To quickly document your students' work, have a camera handy. Ask each student to pose with or write their name on the composition, and take a picture. These photos are also useful for slide shows, school web sites, and other sharing opportunities.
With photos of student work in hand, you can sit down and record which students need assistance with understanding the mechanics of musical notation. This can also be recorded as part of your report card grades.
In my echo-singing example, the students were being assessed on performance. Yet even the most astute teacher cannot possible judge 20-30 students singing at the same time, with effective feedback for each. Create a performance structure, such as a rondo, which allows individuals or small groups to perform for the rest of the class. If you haven't done much solo performance in class before, students might be timid at first, but with careful planning, starting early (PreK or Kdg is ideal), and perserverance, elementary students can and should absolutely do short solos, vocally, instrumentally, and in movement activities. The more game-like you can make this, the more they will buy into the experience. (If you haven't student Orff Schulwerk yet, this approach is perfect for student-friendly exploration games).
Just as you recorded the composition work with photos, record the performance work with video. You could even put a student in charge of recording! If you're doing a full-class performance with small-group sections like a rondo, try to set the mood and create an uninterrupted performance. Applaud for everyone, and possibly save the feedback/analysis for another day. You can even show the video to the students, and have them critique their own work!
One way to formalize any authentic assessment is to detail the expectations ahead of time. Students may enjoy helping you create a short list of performance guidelines, such as:
- Matching pitch
- Steady beat
- Good volume
- Correct rhythms
- Proper posture
Put the list up on the board, and make sure everyone know the expectations before starting. Then it is quite simple to come up with a "grade" for each performance. For checklists, each item is either a "yes" (1) or "no" (0). If you prefer a rubric, simply add a description of 3 or more levels of performance to each item in the list, such as "Exceeds Expectation", "Meets Expectation", "In Progress", and "Not Met". You might want to just use the checklist visually with the students, and keep the rubric for your own grading/tracking purposes.
Tracking without eating up time
Have you ever discovered a child who was completely lost on a concept months after you taught it, and thought the whole class had understood? It happens all the time. Students learn at different speeds, and on some days they cannot listen due to distractions in their life before they even reach you. This is why it is so helpful to regularly assess each student. But with the limited time students have in music, shouldn't they be singing instead of taking tests? Hopefully the suggestions above will help you include documented assessments without stopping the musical learning.
What if you could test the entire class in just ten minutes? With Unison.School's melodic and rhythmic assessments and a cart of iPads, Chromebooks, or other devices, you can have the entire class taking a short test in no time. Just print out at pass out the QR codes for each student, and have them scan the codes to log in! (Android/Chrome devices will need to have a QR reader installed - talk to your tech person). They will see a list of tests that you have assigned to that class.
If you don't have access to a full class set of devices, try setting up a station of 1-4 devices in the back of your room, and rotate students back there to take the assessment while you continue teaching! For older students, it may even be possible to create an assignment and ask them to complete it on their own time, such as in the school computer lab or from home. All the scores are automatically saved to your teacher gradebook.