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. Trenkamp 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
Rosalie Schellhous, graduate student, University of California, Santa Barbara
Loretta J. Wood, graduate student, Indiana University

Their essays were also included in Symposium Volume 13.


In the fall of 1971, the editor of the College Music Symposium wrote an editorial calling for the College Music Society and the American Musicological Society to help raise the standard of undergraduate education in music.1 Many educators have been working for curriculum reforms, of course; what is surprising, however, is that students have answered Dr. Buelow's call. The difference between students of one decade and the next rarely involves the majority of students; it is a minority of vocal and active students who define the "character" of the undergraduate student in an era. The opinions of this important minority are stated below.

In contrast to the idealistic image given to students in the '60s, the students of the '70s have been described as apathetic, cynical, reactionary, and dull. While today's student may have all of these qualities at one time or another, one characteristic that separates him from students of the previous decade is his mature attitude toward his education. College used to be described as an environment where the student established his identity and chose what he wanted to do with his life, but expanded high school curricula have helped the student to decide these matters before he enters college. If the student has any doubts, he is more likely to delay entrance until he knows what he wants to do.

In the '60s, a student might protest against the policies of a university; today, the student will simply take his business elsewhere. He knows, in short, that he is a consumer: colleges are in supply and students are in demand. Although tuition does not pay the entire cost of a student's education, the money a student spends is sufficient to make its absence felt.

The music student has traditionally been more conscious of his consumer status than his liberal arts counterpart. A young musician goes to a particular college or conservatory to study a specific subject or instrument with his teacher. The new emphasis on the student's consumer status has merely intensified the viewpoint of the music student. On both the undergraduate and graduate levels, this point of view has had positive and negative effects.

The undergraduate usually still picks a school because he wants to study with one member of the faculty. However, he now expects more from the other musical departments; if he is an instrumentalist, he expects good instruction in music theory and music history. He also wants the freedom to explore interests outside of music.

Many of the comments about undergraduate students result from a misunderstanding of the student's meaning of good instruction. What qualities and concepts do students today subsume under the heading, good instruction? First, good instruction implies a carefully-prepared core curriculum, whose goals are the preparation of the student to deal with any style of music, and a variety of course options that allow the student to choose subjects which interest him and still prepare him for graduate school.

Music to these students does not mean the notation, history and performance practice of Western European music from 1700 to 1900. Music is universal in time and space; it covers the Middle Ages and the 20th century, Far-Eastern Music and the latest commercial music. Further, these students will not accept the a priori value judgments of the traditional curricula, because every age and culture contains music potentially valuable to them.

Plainly, today's student wants to become educated in music, not in a particular style of music. Over the past several years various articles in Symposium have suggested workable curricula for this kind of education. Now the student urges that these plans be used.

Second, the student wants the right to be considered an adult. Traditionally, a student, regardless of age, has been considered a child whose lessons must be planned and whose homework must be checked. Now the student claims a good part of the responsibility for his education. Obviously, since not all adults are responsible, neither will all students be responsible. Yet it seems reasonable to listen to their requests. They ask that lectures contain: (1) additional material pertinent to the assigned readings or work; (2) methods of applying what they have learned from the assigned material; or (3) concepts which help to organize material they are studying.

Notice that they are less concerned with the size of the class than students of the last decade and more concerned with what happens in the class. The old cry of the '60s that the older, well-known professors never bothered to teach an undergraduate class is a dead issue. To their dismay, students learned that not every famous scholar teaches well at the undergraduate level. With a reasonable amount of sophistication, undergraduates today only ask for what they have paid: good teaching by competent musicians.

Third, today's students realize the value of testing. They ask, however, that tests be relevant to the material studied and to the learning process, since unnecessary testing merely wastes class time. The student option of final examination or research paper in courses where this is possible has had general approbation. When tests must be given, the student wants to come away from the test having learned something.

In the '60s, one outstanding teacher's courses in music literature were so popular that he couldn't allow many essay questions on tests, let alone allow research papers. He reasoned that because his lectures contained so much material, the student would have the most difficulty synthesizing the material he had learned; the teacher therefore adopted a testing procedure in which the student, by answering a series of related short-answer questions, would leave the examination with a better understanding of the period studied.

After the student has acquired the basic tools for understanding music and gained concepts about music history and literature, he wants to be able to test his new-found abilities by engaging in independent study while still an undergraduate. This is merely a change of situation from the old ideas on testing; in keeping with the student's concept of his own responsibility towards his education, he wants to test his education by applying himself to a specific project. If the project is wisely chosen, it can be a most effective means of testing. Whatever skills or concepts the student has failed to master quickly show up; his ability to communicate about materials in his field is also tested. Further, the student's desire and ability for research work are tested at an earlier level.

Finally, the undergraduate student demands that he be given adequate advice concerning future employment opportunities. It is not necessarily unacademic to want to know whether you will be able to support yourself if you enter a particular field. Past advising has often been inadequate and has encouraged many music students to continue for graduate degrees when they would have been happier and more productive doing something else.

The students described here do not represent all of today's music students. Enough of them have answered Dr. Buelow's call, however, for those music teachers and departments who have been content to maintain the status quo to reconsider alternative methods of teaching. Perhaps it is not the students but the faculty who have been apathetic, reactionary, and dull.

1Buelow, George J. "Editorial: Why Have We Failed?" College Music Symposium XI (Fall, 1971), 13-15.

2439 Last modified on April 17, 2018