Toward Greater Teaching Effectiveness

October 1, 1980

Composing, performing, publishing, and research have long been the primary criteria for decisions about retention, promotion, and tenure within the college music teaching profession. However, good teaching has come to be an almost equally important factor, particularly within the last decade. Yet few issues in higher education generate as much heated debate as the quality of teaching in our colleges and universities. On nearly all campuses there is continual talk about faculty evaluation, with the quality of teaching a major concern. Even students are complaining about poor teaching. It is time for improving college instruction and rewarding teaching excellence.

Excellence in teaching does not come automatically; it must be learned as a craft. The craft of teaching can be developed and the academic profession has the fundamental responsibility for the development of that craft.1 The primary task of a professor in assessing his or her classroom performance is to identify the characteristics of effective teaching, for self-evaluation rests upon knowledge of what good teaching is. Although the specific techniques of superior teachers are as unique as the individuals themselves, common qualities can be observed: energy, enthusiasm, class/rehearsal pacing, and a procedure for evaluating and improving one's teaching effectiveness.

Energy is a characteristic of effective teaching which is often experienced but frequently overlooked. Successful teachers, aware of the energy required, come away drained from a good class or rehearsal. Superior teaching consists of exhibiting this kind of superior mental and physical energy. Exerting dynamism, even aggressiveness—producing that special charge of excitement in the classroom, rehearsal hall and studio—should make great demands upon the teacher's energy. Unless the conductor/teacher expends energy, teaching will remain the kind of thing students will only tolerate.2 The general principle of any study may be learned through books at home, but the detail, the color, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, must be caught from those in whom it lives already.3 This kind of energy can be revealed in numerous ways. Physical movement (making subtle and broad gestures, moving toward and around students) makes for more dramatic presentations and holds the students' attention. Being willing to step away from the podium/lectern can help stimulate the learning environment. Using the physical dimensions of the voice as well as gestures reveals another kind of energy. By employing a dynamic range from a whisper to a thunder, changes in physical presence and gestures, and dramatic presentations, we can be more stimulating, motivating and effective.

Enthusiasm can be exemplified in the studio, classroom or rehearsal through animation and verbal as well as non-verbal intensity, for a primary source of stimulation and motivation is the teacher. The instructor's enthusiasm directly affects his students' interest in the subject matter. Enthusiasm is more than dedication or involvement in the chansons of the troubadours and trouvères or a performance of Nänie or a Schenkerian analysis. Rather, enthusiasm is revealed in the enjoyment of presenting and rehearsing the material and working with students. The effective college music teacher is aroused not only by his own excitement and interest in performing and studying but also by his ability to arouse others to learn.

While few professors can be unaware of students who are reading newspapers or sleeping during class, how many of us fail to recognize blank stares, restless shifting in seats, or other signs as evidence that the students are not paying attention? These signals—signs of disinterest or boredom—should be meaningfully interpreted, and subsequently influence one's teaching performance. The ability to be highly perceptive—to sense loss of interest and attention and to adjust what had been planned—is essential to a good sense of pacing. The effective instructor maintains student interest so that a fifty-minute rehearsal or class seems short. Through programming a variety of activities, topics, or musical selections, the effective teacher is able to break the class/rehearsal up into smaller successful units. Incorporating guest experts and performers, non-directive and directive discussions, field trips and role playing in the class provides the instructional variety consistent with good teaching. For the effective college music teacher must, with creativity and imagination, employ a variety of means by which his teaching is given new life, refreshed meaning.4

Most professors want to improve their teaching effectiveness. But how many of us can turn this abstract wishing into concrete self-improvement? For instance when we reflect critically upon our effectiveness in a particular class, lesson or ensemble, we say general, non-specific things like: "My students didn't seem to understand the material," "They seemed bored," "My class didn't go well," "The chorus members hate to come to rehearsals." These comments may describe one's general instinctive impressions of a class, but in terms of improving a teacher's effectiveness—of making a real difference—they do little more than ease the conscience of a professor who wishes to be a concerned pedagogue. Do they actually help in improving teaching effectiveness?

We all have ensembles, classes and students which are of concern. But these concerns must move beyond mere "gripes" and instead provide an impetus for change, toward greater classroom/rehearsal effectiveness. First, all critical reactions—general impressions or feelings—toward our teaching, rehearsals or classes must be identified as specifically as possible. "My class didn't go over well" should be translated into "Only two out of twenty-five students responded to my questions and none of them initiated comments or questions." The impression "They seemed bored" should be restated as "Five students were doodling and none of them volunteered answers." Likewise "The chorus members hate to come to rehearsals," should be stated as "Between ten and fifteen chorus members are tardy for rehearsals, and the absentee rate is higher than in last semester's chorus." The first step, therefore, in improving teaching effectiveness is recognizing and describing the specifics of the problem: the precise definition of areas of concern.

This formulation of the precise area of concern enables a professor to generate solutions to the problem. For example when "The class didn't go over well" is translated as "Only two out of the twenty-five students responded to my questions, and none of them initiated comments or questions," one is then in a position to effect change. Possible causes to consider include: (l) questions are too difficult, (2) teacher is punitive when students give incorrect answers—therefore they avoid risking "wrong" answers, (3) not enough praise is offered when correct answers are given, (4) after asking questions, teacher does not allow enough "thinking time" but instead continues talking after completing the question.

Once "The chorus members hate to come to rehearsals" is restated as "Between ten and fifteen chorus members are tardy for rehearsals, and the absentee rate is higher than in last year's chorus" specific steps by the director can be taken: (1) establish attendance/tardy policies, (2) examine motivational factors, e.g., performance schedule, difficulty and choice of music, rehearsal procedures, and so forth. When specific areas of concern are pinpointed and clearly defined, individual professors are themselves in the best position to formulate causes, procedures, and remedies toward achieving greater teacher effectiveness.

There need not be a distinction or a conflict between an emphasis on advanced learning or the improvement of teaching methods and techniques. Rather than being dichotomous these are supportive and equally necessary functions demanded of the superior teacher. Mediocre teaching is easy to do; effective teaching makes the same demands as does any craft or art. Excellence in college music teaching is not accomplished through a magical formula. It results from a "happy combination of common sense, knowledge of subject, teaching skills, enthusiasm, force of personality, artful judgement, and plain hard work."5

1Kenneth E. Eble, Professors as Teachers (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1972), p. 37.

2Ibid., p. 43.

3John Henry Newman, "The Idea of a University," The Harvard Classics, Essays English and American, ed. Charles W. Eliot (New York: P.F. Collier and Sons, 1910), p. 33.

4Raymond M. Maslowski, "Toward Excellence in College Teaching," Improving College and University Teaching XXIV, No. 2 (Spring 1976), 125.

5James W. Brown and James W. Thorton, College Teaching: Perspectives and Guidelines (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1963), p. 105.

1987 Last modified on October 25, 2018