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. Wood 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
Anne Trenkamp, graduate student, Case Western Reserve University

Their essays were also included in Symposium Volume 13.


The measure of a teacher's effectiveness is something far greater than those results immediately perceived; it is rather grasped in the long-term gains: attitudes formed or developed, ways of thinking about or approaching problems, personal interest by the teacher. There are teachers, however, whose effectiveness is felt long before the student leaves the direct sphere of influence. Such teachers as these have seemed to me to possess a selection of qualities which contribute to their competence, among them: a thorough knowledge of their subject area and an added insight which builds upon the material studied by the student; the organization of that knowledge into a format comprehensible to one less well-versed than the teacher; an ability to examine students creatively and practically, to teach beyond the final exam period; and that vital sense of humor in our own humanity.

By virtue of his chosen presence in the academic setting a student has a right to expect competent and thorough teaching. That right, of course, entails the responsibility of the student's preparation which in turn leads to the need for the teacher-scholar who builds upon that study. Without the interdependency of these academic rights and responsibilities, the classroom or lecture hall deteriorates into little more than an overgrown study hall; with them, teacher and student together can engage in that counterpoint of ideas which marks the beginning of understanding. Within the music history course, for example, the teacher-scholar has an excellent opportunity to point the student on a way to insight and understanding. In my experience, the music history courses I have taken have offered only scant recognition of concurrent developments in art, literature, philosophy, and politics. How can music be related to man's continuing expression of his world without the comprehension, for example, that Monteverdi's Vespro della Beata Vergine preceded the Pilgrims' landing at Plymouth Rock by ten years? From childhood we are taught some basic history, often primarily Western. When the student reaches music school, however, he is often confronted by music history courses which bear little or no relationship to his previous understanding of history. Not to suggest that a professor has an obligation to fill in all details or to put all in perspective for the student; rather, he can point out, for example, that less than a decade after Columbus began his Atlantic cruise Petrucci was printing the Odhecaton. Thus, while not purporting to present world history, the teaching of music history may be enhanced and thereby rendered more germane by anchoring it to the student's previous knowledge.

As the student has a right to expect of his professor a thorough and accurate knowledge of his discipline, he also should expect a reasonable teaching of the same. Such an approach should hardly require the memorization and subsequent parroting of countless obscure facts for their own sake. This is by no means to discount the validity of memorization—after all, we cannot spend all our lives looking things up—but in a world where we are constantly reminded of the seemingly limitless expansion of knowledge and information, it hardly seems fair to require the encyclopedic knowledge some professors continue to demand.

In presenting that area of knowledge he knows best, it is vital that a teacher use some method of organization which can be comprehensible to the average, perhaps poorly informed student. Without making a case for extremes, it might be added that consistency of organization is also helpful. It should be unnecessary to mention so elementary a point, yet when such structure is lacking much is lost; when it is present, a student can finish a course with organized material for his own future reference and, more important, a logical grasp of the material in his own mind. To reinforce this last point, let us not forget that knowledge and learning ideally extend beyond the final exam, and the professor who prepares his students for this ranks high in his effectiveness.

Within our present educational system it is customary for students to be examined periodically over the material studied. The manner in which this is carried out can also be indicative of competent teaching. The finest exams I have ever taken were not games of matching wits with a professor or committing to memory as much obscure data as possible; instead I was called upon to apply what I had learned, to thereby learn more and draw intelligent conclusions. Again, this is not to diminish in any way the value of memorization and identification questions but to recognize that the situation which makes a test a formality or an exercise in gamesmanship is of much less ultimate worth.

Possibly a small matter, but worth noting is the need of a sense of humor in ourselves and in our own fallible humanity. The teacher-scholar does well to pinch himself and his students now and then with the reminder that outside those bastions of scholasticism there breathes a world for much of which music is not the be all-end all of life. Perhaps that is the source of our chuckles at Beethoven's mention of money spent on hot chocolate for Haydn or at Stravinsky's price demands for commissioned works.

The effective teacher, knowledgeable, organized, creative, and human, need not be a rare species. His strong points may vary in concentration, but the respect he commands and the debt his students can acknowledge, coupled with a preparation for and stimulus toward further learning, are the true measure of his effectiveness.

1763 Last modified on November 13, 2018