The Use of Cooperative Action Learning to Increase Music Appreciation Students' Listening Skills

October 1, 2004

Listening dominates our culture's musical involvement, and therefore music listening education is increasingly important. College level music appreciation classes provide an opportunity to teach listening skills to a wide range of students who are primarily non-music majors and have little involvement with music other than listening. With the limitation of time, how can we teach listening skills in the most efficient and effective manner?

Cooperative action learning that actively engages students through small group involvement can be an effective method in teaching the acquisition of listening skills. Cooperative action learning is defined as students working together in teams constructing knowledge through problem solving and decision making. Critical thinking and social skills are integrated with academic content (Adams & Hamm, 1994, p. 38). Students establish feeling-thinking linkages in a reflective process that creates conceptual meaning from experience. In cooperative action learning, students construct their own learning while growing in self-confidence. Collaborative work is more powerful for problem solving and decision making than individual work. Students have to advocate for their ideas and defend them, leading to results that are more carefully thought through (Wiggins, 2000). The literature asserts that cooperative learning is effective (Aronson, Bridgeman, & Geffner, 1978; Bradley, 1974; Baker, 2002; Bryce, 2001; Cameron & Bartel, 2000; Claire, 1993/1994; Friedmann, 1989; Goliger, 1995/1996; Haack, 1969; Hostermann, 1992; Johnson & Johnson, 1991; Johnson, Johnson, & Anderson, 1983; Kaschub, 1996; Kassner, 2002; Slavin, 1983a, 1983b, 1990, 1991; Smithee 1989; Wheeler, 1997; Wiggins, 2000).

Much of the cooperative learning research that deals with manipulating music elements and the effects on listening skills has been conducted on the elementary, junior high, and high school level. The results indicate highly significant gain scores on listening skills criterion measures (Bradley, 1974; Haack, 1969; Smithee, 1989). Other research, using cooperative learning groups, indicates a more intense engagement in the process of music making, greater understanding of music concepts, and enhanced creativity (Bryce, 2001; Cameron & Bartel, 2000; Claire, 1993/1994; Kaschub, 1996; Kassner, 2002; Wiggins, 2000).

Smithee (1989) demonstrated that an active approach utilizing direct involvement with the elements of music yielded higher gains in listening skills. Smithee compared a Guided Listening Approach of 20th century music learning with that of a Composition/Performance Approach as a means of developing students' aural awareness of selected basic music concepts. Smithee's Composition Performance Approach emphasized student performance and composition as a means of introducing basic music concepts. A series of paired comparison t test analyses revealed that the experimental treatment was significantly more effective than that of the control strategy on the discrimination of music listening achievement. It was suggested that students who manipulate the elements of music in a creative process may become more motivated resulting in a greater growth in learning.

On the college level, few studies have examined music appreciation students' acquisition of listening skills. The outcome has been mixed with both the lecture method and a cooperative, experimental, problem-solving approach achieving gains on listening skills (Eisman, 1975; Hosterman, 1992; Smith, 1980). An investigation by Hosterman compared the effectiveness of cooperative learning strategies and traditional lecture/demonstration in a college music appreciation course. Four areas, history, musical elements, listening, and attitudes were compared. Though no significant differences occurred between groups on the elements and music history sections of the final exam, the experimental group scored significantly higher on the listening section. Support for the benefits of cooperative learning strategies was found in the instructors' journals and in peer observations. Cooperative learning was recommended to improve students' listening skills.

Cooperative action learning is based on humanistic philosophy including the constructivist, holistic, and praxial perspectives of education. In all three philosophies, learning takes place by integrating observations and experiences into a personal framework. The learning process itself is the central focus. The educator uses his/her expertise to facilitate the problem solving process rather than directing and solving problems for students. The humanistic educator assists the student in building and integrating conceptual meaning from experience.

The constructivist philosophy described by John Cleveland is based on the premise that we build our own understanding of the world by actively reflecting on our experiences. Learning occurs when our mental constructions adjust to take in new information. Knowledge is inherently subjective and is created through the student's relationship with the world. "Knowledge is valued because it improves the 'map' between our mental constructions and actual experience not because it matches what the 'teacher' already knows" (O'Banion, 1997, p. 84).

In a holistic approach, music is taught in ways that develop significant connections between tonal phenomena and human experience. The student is taught as well as the subject of music. Bridges are constructed between the sound phenomena in music and the experience of music in the student. Opportunities are provided for the student to enter the artistic process and become involved with artistic phenomena. Through thinking, feeling, and sharing their experiences, students are challenged to see themselves as they have been, presently are, and may become (Tait & Haack, 1984, pp. 55-61). Similar to the holistic approach, David Elliott's praxial philosophy integrates the music, participant, activity, and cultural surroundings as components of the whole. Elliott (1995) states, "The musicianship we deploy in the actions of singing and playing is a tool for achieving the life goals of self-growth, self-knowledge, flow, and self-esteem. Students can acquire musicianship and learn how to use it only through progressive musical problem solving in genuine musical practice situations" (p. 176). The constructivist, holistic, and praxial philosophies provide a set of systematized principles and support the use of cooperative action learning.

A large body of evidence gathered over many years points out the inadequacies of the lecture method. One study found that teachers in the typical classroom spent about 80% of their time lecturing to students who were attentive to what was being said about 50% of the time. However, Patrick Terenzini and Ernest Pascarella noted, "Lecturing is the overwhelming method of choice for teaching undergraduates in most institutions" (O'Banion, 1997, p. 15). If passively listening to lectures is not very effective, then it becomes imperative that music education teach listening in an active, collaborative manner that will serve the current needs of society.

Cooperative learning designs lessons around active learning teams where students' energies work toward improving listening skills. Cooperative learning is based on how students construct knowledge, promoting active learning in a way not possible with competitive or individualized learning (Adams & Hamm, 1994, p. 42). Action learning is "minds-on" learning and is highly dependent on problem solving and decision making. Concepts are treated as hypotheses and elicited by a problem that the learner seeks to overcome through a decision making activity. Purposiveness becomes evident as the student intentionally problem solves (Regelski, 1986, pp. 197-198).

The purpose of this study was to determine if the cooperative action learning method was more effective than the lecture method on the acquisition of listening skills that include melody, form, meter, timbre, and modality among college level music appreciation students. The following areas of investigation stem from the study's purpose: (1) to ascertain the extent that cooperative action learning impacts the listening skills achievement of music appreciation students; (2) to determine if cooperative action learning increases students' ability to hear melody, form, meter, timbre, and modality as used in a composition; and (3) to explore music appreciation students' preference for the cooperative action learning method or the traditional lecture method.



The present study involved three college instructors and their intact music appreciation classes totaling 88 students. The researcher used cooperative action learning with two music appreciation classes totaling 44 students for a 15 week semester. Two instructors at different colleges used the traditional lecture method with their music appreciation classes with a total of 44 students for a 15 week semester. All students received a pretest, the Hevner Test for Musical Concepts, at the beginning of the semester. The Hevner Test requires students to listen to the "Menuetto" from Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G Minor. The students then answer true/false type questions that relate to melody, form, meter, timbre, and modality. An example from the test is "The first melody is descending." All students take the same test at the end of the semester as a posttest. The students in the traditional lecture classes served as the control group that the experimental group receiving cooperative action learning could be compared to. This experimental design is known as the pre-posttest control group.

In the beginning of the semester, the 88 students filled out a Musical Background Questionnaire to determine the years of musical experiences they had. The purpose of the questionnaire was to compare the experimental and control groups at the start and determine if they were similar. At the end of the semester, the experimental group filled out a Cooperative Action Learning Questionnaire that indicated how they felt about the two teaching methods.

The cooperative action learning activities included a variety of forms for group work and the individual assessments for listening. The activities were used in conjunction with a standard music appreciation text. Eleven directed listening forms asked a combination of subjective and objective questions. The directed listening forms focused students' aural perceptions on certain qualities of the music. Throughout the semester students would listen to a piece of music and then answer questions on a directed listening form about the music. For example, after listening to Louis Armstrong's "Hotter Than That" near the beginning of the semester, students would answer questions like, "How do you think variety is achieved?" Students chose from dynamic changes, tempo changes, variety of instruments (tone colors), and unusual form. As the semester progressed, the directed listening forms asked more from the students in terms of listening. For example, after listening to the "Dies irae" from Mozart's Requiem in D Minor, students filled out a chart describing the melody, harmony, mode, mood, timbre, texture, and text. The information from the directed listening forms was shared and discussed in class.

In addition to the class listening as a whole and sharing their feelings, they composed in cooperative action learning groups of approximately four students each. The first project was a sound composition using the elements of pitch, rhythm, timbre, dynamics, and form. This took place near the beginning of the semester when they were learning the elements. The sound composition had to be in ABA form, use a range of pitch and dynamics, exhibit triple and duple meter, and have a variety of timbres. The compositions were performed for the class and had to be notated such that other groups could perform them. After each performance, members of the group explained how the elements were used. The compositions were graded by the instructor on meeting criteria. Also, members of each group graded each other on participation. The groups took two class periods to compose their sound compositions and one class period to perform and discuss them.

The second project for the cooperative action groups was composing a melody. Each melody consisted of four phrases and ended on a specified degree of the scale. Basic melody shapes were also discussed and used. Within the four phrases, students wrote phrases that were similar and contrasting. The melody was based on the C major scale and could be in duple or triple meter. Each group had to have one person with basic keyboard skills. Once the melodies were written, the instructor performed all of them for the class.

The third and final cooperative action group project was writing a traditional chord progression and then the melody. Students used one chord per measure with chords based on C major. The first measure used the tonic chord, and the first phrase ended with an incomplete (half) cadence such as tonic to dominant. The second phrase ended with a complete cadence, dominant to tonic. For the last chord in the third phrase, students could choose subdominant, dominant, or submediant. The fourth phrase had a complete cadence. Once the chord progression was written, students chose notes for the melody that were primarily from the chords. After composing the melodies with chordal accompaniment, the instructor performed them for the class.

A class period was spent role-playing a music editor at the end of the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods to review the use of elements for that period. A group of students acted as editors choosing music for an anthology for the particular period. They discussed how the elements were used in the music, and if the music was an appropriate representation of the period. The role-playing helped the students prepare for the listening assessment for the particular period. The three listening assessments on the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods served as an individual record for the comprehension of music elements for each period.

Each control and experimental group's score (mean, mode, median, and range) on the Hevner Test for Musical Concepts, used as the pretest and posttest, was determined. Within each group, separate subscores were determined for melody, meter, form, modality, and timbre. These represented the five dependent listening achievement variables. Reliability was determined for both the pretest and the posttest. The reliability alpha for both the experimental and control groups' pretest was .391, meaning virtually no reliability with students merely guessing. The reliability alpha for the entire posttest was .656. A single Repeated Measures Multivariate Analysis of Variance was the statistical test used to determine if the cooperative action learning method was effective. The "Repeated Measures" refers to the pretest and posttest scores on the Hevner Test for Musical Concepts. The dependent variables were the listening achievement scores for melody, meter, form, modality, and timbre. The teaching methods of cooperative action learning and the traditional lecture were the independent measures. The statistical analysis will determine if cooperative action learning affects listening skill achievement for melody, meter, form, modality, and timbre of music appreciation students.



The scores for increasing listening skills using cooperative action learning were significantly higher than the scores using the lecture method in this study. This consequential difference was due to the significant gains in the listening achievement of melody, meter, and timbre using the experimental condition of cooperative action learning (Figure 1). Meter exhibited the largest gain followed by timbre and melody.


Figure 1. Significant effect of cooperative action learning due to significant gains in the listening achievement of melody, meter, and timbre.



Group statistics were examined on the pretest and posttest scores. Scores on the Hevner Test for Musical Concepts may range from a negative 58 to a positive 58. The mean score for the experimental group's pretest was 7.34, while the control group's mean pretest score was 5.43. Both groups had relatively low pretest scores. The mean posttest score for the experimental group was 20.09, while the control group scored 6.18.

The information from the Musical Background Questionnaire was statistically tested with an independent samples t test. It was important to know if there were differences in the musical background between the experimental and control groups. The test showed the musical background of the experimental and control groups was reasonably similar. Each group had approximately the same number of years of musical experiences such as participating in ensembles and taking lessons. Neither the control nor experimental group had an advantage in musical training.

The statistical results shown in Table 1 indicate that the scores for the cooperative action learning group were significantly higher than the scores for the lecture method group (p

Table 1

Repeated Measures Multivariate Analysis of Prepost Effect and Univariate Subanalysis of Dependent Variables

Value Hypothesis
Error df F p

0.523 5 82 14.941 0.001

Univariate Test SS df MS F p

Melody 88.778 1 88.778 7.234 0.009
error 1055.443 86 12.273
Form 3.006 1 3.006 0.415 0.521
error 622.489 86 7.238
Meter 381.142 1 381.142 43.657 0.001
error 750.807 86 8.730
Timbre 149.114 1 149.114 20.996 0.001
error 610.773 86 7.102
Modality 3.551 1 3.551 0.757 0.387
error 403.443 86 4.691

The statistical test performed on the dependent variables of melody, form, meter, timbre, and modality identified the dependent variables that produced significant effects for cooperative action learning. Cooperative action learning significantly increased the listening achievement of melody (p p p

At the end of the semester, students who received cooperative action learning answered a questionnaire to determine if they preferred hands-on group activities or the lecture method. Most students, 83%, agreed or strongly agreed that they preferred group work and activities to the lecture method. Even more students, 96%, considered the class fun and enjoyable because of the activities and group work.

Several analyses were conducted with the intent of determining the effect of the cooperative action learning method and the lecture method on student listening achievement of melody, form, meter, timbre, and modality. The following conclusions were demonstrated: (1) the scores for the cooperative action learning group were significantly higher than the lecture method group as measured by the Hevner Test for Musical Concepts (p p p p


The data showed that the cooperative action learning method appeared to be more effective than the lecture method. These findings agreed with Hosterman (1992) who found that music appreciation students receiving cooperative learning strategies scored significantly higher on listening than those who received a lecture-demonstration method. The findings of the current study were also supported by several studies (Bradley, 1974; Haack, 1969; Smithee, 1989) that examined the effects on listening skills when primary and secondary students used and manipulated music elements. In each case, music listening achievement increased significantly when students had direct contact with the substantive elements of music through manipulation. It can be concluded that manipulating the musical elements in a creative process results in greater growth in learning.

Students involved with cooperative action learning used a holistic, intuitive process. The teaching method was student-centered and required hands-on activities, discovery learning, problem solving, and synthesizing. "Cooperative learning encourages students to become involved with subject matter at all levels of Bloom's cognitive taxonomy" (Kassner, 2002, p. 17). As soon as students began composing in groups, it was an activity they looked forward to, and it was easier for them to hear those elements in the compositions of the master composers. The cooperative action learning students had the opportunity to interpret and reconstruct the patterns in the elements of music. "Education is a constant reorganizing or reconstructing of experience" (Dewey, 1916, p. 76). Cooperative action learning was more effective than the lecture method due to the way humans learn.

Cooperative action learning enabled students to develop competencies that were not possible through the lecture method. "In researched music education settings, music-making actions have been found to be the most interesting to students" (Bryce, 2001, p. 17). Actively working in groups promoted positive, constructive interactions among students. Building knowledge through discovery was more lasting than memorization. Cameron and Bartel (2000) noted that genuine engagement with music can be described as "cognitive connection . . . self-initiated problem-solving . . . fascination, appreciation, criticism, delight or sustained attention" (p. 22). Students who actively participated in collaborative situations learned measurably more listening skills than those who received passive transfer of knowledge. Group compositions, directed listenings, and editor role-playing all contributed to the increased gains. Students realized they learned more both academically and socially. Consequently, they deemed cooperative action learning to be their method of choice.

Most students (83 percent) who experienced cooperative action learning preferred it to the lecture method as experienced through other classes. Ninety-two percent thought they learned more due to the activities and group work. One student commented, "We were able to combine our ideas. It also makes you more open to other ideas because you have to compromise to work in the groups." Baker (2002) observed that the concept of being exposed to ideas from peers "is particularly important in today's college and university environment as exposure to different skill levels and backgrounds creates an atmosphere of diversity which enhances the student's education" (p. 12). Another student wrote, "During our first activity, I wasn't sure about working in groups. It wasn't the greatest experience, but in the second, we got it together and worked together better. So, I ended up enjoying groups." These students have identified some of the outcomes of cooperative learning recognized by Johnson and Johnson (1978) that include problem-solving effectiveness, group productivity, social adjustment, positive attitude toward learning, appreciation of cultural and individual differences, belief in one's basic competence and worth, development of achievement motivation, and development of interpersonal skills.

Cooperative action learning was not only useful for students, it was also attractive to instructors. One instructor wrote, "I really appreciate what you are doing with your cooperative learning ideas for Music Appreciation! I have used several of your plans and activities and have found that the students respond very positively." With cooperative action learning, the instructor was rewarded with a higher rate of student success, positive evaluations by students, and a teaching method that was gratifying.

For further research, it may be advantageous to use a music computer lab with notation and sequencing software that could enhance the composing component of cooperative action learning. Using traditional methods, the composing groups were somewhat limited by the members' abilities to play and notate a melody. Computer usage would also expand the number of timbres available. It is recommended that if a music lab is available and accessible, music appreciation instructors have their students use it in the composing process.

Music appreciation is one of the most vital classes a music unit offers. It is the last time many students will have any formal instruction regarding music. Students who take music appreciation are not going to be professional performers. However, they will be listeners who consume music for the rest of their lives. It is the final opportunity for music education to provide students with the skills and knowledge to make meaningful choices about music. Cooperative action learning can give these students better listening skills and stronger social skills to enhance their lives.



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