The Student View of Teaching, or What Students Expect of Teachers in the 1970s

October 1, 1973

Teaching is always a focal point of interest in Symposium. For Volume 13, six essays were commissioned from students by selected professors to provide a forum for those who are still on the receiving end of teaching. At the time of this writing, Ms. Schellhous was a graduate student.

The other students were:
Kathleen Brown, undergraduate, University of Colorado
Ramona Hadgis Matthews, graduate student, University of Maryland
Katherine Rohrer, undergraduate, Emory University
Anne Trenkamp, graduate student, Case Western Reserve University
Loretta J. Wood, graduate student, Indiana University

Their essays were also included in Symposium Volume 13.


For some time past, college students have clamored for a share of the responsibility in the hiring and retaining of faculty. In many institutions their demands have been met; student opinion is being actively sought and thoughtfully considered. Now Symposium has seen fit once again to solicit student opinion, and I am personally delighted that this has come about. It is in the spirit of helpfulness that the following comments are offered. They come from the point of view of a graduate teaching assistant. They are the result of personal experience in four different schools, and they have the perspective that comes with a lapse of time and a change of roles. They do not represent a consensus, nor do they represent the interests of the highly creative student or the aspiring professional performer. However, they do reflect to some extent the concerns and interests of the college or university music student in a traditional academic degree program.

Most students in the college or university are aware that a good classroom presentation depends upon many factors that are beyond the teacher's immediate control: the physical facilities of the institution; the curriculum as a whole; the availability of scores, recordings, and audio-visual aids; the completeness of the library collection and the efficacy of library procedures; and, of course, the budget. It should go without saying that a teacher needs the backing of a cooperative department and a campus administration whose policies acknowledge the importance of the arts. In addition, the teacher must not be confronted with too many conflicting responsibilities. The teacher-composer, the teacher-performer, and the teacher-scholar must juggle two lives as it is, and all too often they are required to take on committee work and administrative responsibilities as well. Through no fault of their own, their teaching may suffer as a result. Adequate staffing of the music department is essential if there is to be an equitable distribution of responsibility. An attitude on the part of college administrators that accords to the arts equal consideration with the sciences is badly lacking in American colleges and universities. The department of music, except for the marching band, is too often the forgotten stepchild when it comes to the distribution of funds.

Nevertheless, there is still much that an instructor can do to make his teaching effective. His first consideration must be to get and keep the respect of his students. To do this he must be well prepared for the task of teaching and for the role of teacher. His competence to teach the subject at hand should be unquestionable, and he should have the ability to make the learning experience vital and rewarding. Teaching is primarily a human relationship, and student concerns focus upon the problem of communication within that relationship.

Music students, especially those in performance, are more vulnerable than their counterparts in other fields. When they fail, they must do so in public. Therefore, the performance student needs a teacher who will demonstrate an unwavering faith in his potential for success, who can be both friend and guide, who will support and encourage him while remaining totally honest in his evaluations, and whose criticisms will be directed to specific problems and accompanied by concrete suggestions for improvement. It is a difficult role, and it is complicated, undeniably, by the least suggestion of a critical stance on the part of the student. How easy it is to lapse into authoritarian patterns—to adopt the simplest way and let the student worship at the feet of the master. But such relationships do not permit personal growth.

From the student's point of view, a good teacher-student relationship, whether in the performance situation or in the classroom, has three important characteristics: it is based upon mutual respect; it allows the student to test his own ideas freely; and it allows the student the right to fail, for without this right he will learn only to conform—to play it safe. Authoritarian attitudes and intimidation are barriers to real communication. What is more, many students are aware that these attitudes can mask both ignorance and incompetence on the teacher's part. Good teaching rests in the open exchange of ideas. The teacher must have the preparation and the confidence to meet his students half way. The role calls for maturity, emotional balance, and good will.

The quality of the classroom experience also depends upon a number of skills and attitudes that students are especially sensitive to. The effective presentation of material begins with the ability to organize information and render it in words. Unfortunately, not all fine musicians are verbally skillful. When they are not, their instructions are lame as a result. In addition, the ability to illustrate an idea vocally or at the keyboard may be crucial to the completeness of an argument. The teacher need not be a virtuoso. It is more important that the demonstration be musically sensitive than that it be accurate or dramatic. The teacher also needs to have realistic expectations regarding the levels of achievement and the capabilities of his students. To talk down to them will alienate them and cause them to doubt their own level of sophistication, but to talk over their heads will yield no results. If the teacher is flexible and sensitive to his students' responses, he will be able to evaluate his own performance continually and adjust his technique to suit the situation. Expectations regarding the limits of the calendar must also be realistic. Too often a teacher is faced with the problem of fitting much material into too little time. The quarter system, for example, can be a source of extraordinary pressure. The temptation to cover the material at all cost should be resisted. The proper objective is student mastery, not the presentation of all aspects of a subject. Students are seldom content to know very little about a great deal.

Lack of any of these skills can be compensated for if the teacher has a deep regard for music and a knowledge of it that extends beyond the facts. Furthermore, there are times when talk is no longer appropriate and the music itself is the best teacher. One of my best experiences occurred during a guided listening session when the instructor, a man not ordinarily given to displays of emotion, had the courage to show that he was deeply moved by the crucifixion scene in the St. Matthew Passion. His honesty led us all to experience the music in a way that seldom happens in the classroom. In that hour we learned more about the reality of great music than years of analysis and fact-gathering could ever yield. Admittedly, this was an exceptional situation and one for which we were well prepared in advance. However, it has been apparent to me ever since that too intellectual a stance on the part of a teacher can interfere with complete musical comprehension.

The most sensitive aspect of teaching centers around the necessity for testing and evaluation. Many students are convinced. that the process of evaluation is hurtful. Some feel that tests seldom reflect achievement realistically and, moreover, that the necessity to prove oneself a dozen times a year is wasteful of both teacher and student time and energy. Allowing that tests are here to stay, at least for the time being, there are some basic criteria for a good test on which most students would probably agree. To be fair, a test should cover only material that has been introduced in reading or lecture during the course; questions or problems should be clearly stated in familiar terms; and the test should be correctable in such a way that the final grade will, at the very least, represent the quality of performance on the test itself and hopefully something of the student's achievement in the course as well. What is more, a good test is not a trap; it is directed to the crucial issues rather than to isolated details.

The evaluation of term projects should be as comprehensive as possible—it should be directed not only to problems of format, style, and documentation, but also to the worthiness of the observations and the quality of the argument. In order to do this fairly, the teacher needs a broad educational background and a broad point of view. He must be able to see his own musical discipline within the context of his art as a whole, and he must see his art within the entire social complex to which it belongs. Without this kind of perspective, he may underestimate the value of a student's research, particularly at the undergraduate level, for the university music student is also engaged in a liberal education.

Broadness of view is even more essential outside the classroom, for in the casual interchange between teachers and students, the teacher must maintain the respect of students and colleagues as a person. There are times and circumstances when music is not the most important consideration, and a student's commitments in other areas should be recognized. The lack of social involvement of both music teachers and music students described by Meyer Cahn in Symposium (XII, 1972, p. 50) is not peculiar to San Francisco State. Fortunately, not all music students and teachers are socially unaware. Some are deeply involved in social and political action. Such students will regard a failure on the part of a professor to take an intelligent and thoughtful stand on important issues as a form of culpable ignorance. Not that these subjects are proper to the classroom. Under most circumstances (moratoriums and national crises excepted) students are jealous of classroom time and tend to resent any expenditure of it that is off the subject.

Broadness of view is not merely an intellectual stance. In the teaching situation it has to be lived. A teacher needs the personal generosity and flexibility to recognize the student's performance obligation and to adjust study schedules accordingly. To be caught between the demands of two professors causes deep resentment and hard feeling. Such dilemmas are often rooted in professional competitiveness within the faculty. Elitist attitudes are rampant among musicians, and they are particularly destructive of the quality of education. If the faculty is divided, the sincere student who wishes to please all will please none.

A good teacher, then, is one who recognizes students as individuals and who enters wholeheartedly into the teacher-student exchange. He knows that music students are sensitive, sometimes excessively so, and he takes that into consideration. However, in case a professor has such an abundance of good relationships that he can not get any work done, he might consider some of the following proven methods for alienating students:

1. use sarcasm and belittlement, especially in public

2. violate the student's confidence—expose personal information, self-doubts, embarrassing errors

3. set arbitrary rules and deadlines—a degree shouldn't be too easy to get

4. never be available for consultation

5. cultivate a pygmalion complex—students should be molded in the spirit of the master

6. avoid clearly stated or mutually acceptable grading policies—evaluate students on a personal basis—after all, some of them don't deserve good grades

Fortunately, few teachers are guilty of such flagrant violations of personal and professional ethics, but to the extent one is guilty he will be judged a bad teacher. These are the violations that students rarely forgive. Lack of background, lack of classroom skill, even professional competitiveness can be compensated for. Unfairness and personal insensitivity cannot.

Students do not expect miracles of their teachers, although, on the whole, becoming educated amounts to one. Sometimes the miracle is dearly bought. A certain amount of pain seems to be necessary in the education process, for it involves not only the acquiring of knowledge and skills but the replacing of an adolescent self-image with a new and hopefully more realistic one. The student must surrender some of his most fondly held notions of self and the world, and, unfortunately, for better or worse, one's illusions do not drop away like an old skin. The teacher's responsibility is to provide the stimulus for change and then to allow it to take place. He should try to minimize the discomfort to whatever extent he is able. However, he cannot teach personal growth. It must come about by indirection, for this part of the education process is the student's own affair. The teacher must have the sensitivity not to violate his student's privacy. He must never fail to respect the student's dignity as a person. Although personal development is central to an education, curriculum planners who propose to teach courses with "growth" objectives should keep in mind that personal growth is a natural process. One can have faith that it will come about as a result of exposure to new ideas and experiences and the necessity for self-discipline. One does not have to teach the baby to walk. In fact, the attempt may cripple him.

2462 Last modified on April 17, 2018