Rationale for the new design
Course design
Typical week's lesson
Complete course materials
Evaluation results
Statistics on web use
Correlation between web use and performance in the course
Pedagogical possibilities


Like many who teach music listening or music appreciation courses, I have sought ways to promote more active learning by my students. In 1997, inspired by experimental course designs in the sciences and by new software that allows web pages to cue CD listening examples, I redesigned my music listening course to allow more active participation by my students in their listening process. In order to judge the effectiveness of the new course design, I gathered data on students' attitudes and on their test performance relative to their use of the web pages. This article describes the rationale for the new course design, provides access to all of the web materials for the course, and presents data from student evaluations and performance in order to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of this approach.

Rationale for the new design

My changes in course design were motivated by the desire to use each medium available to its fullest potential. While there is certainly a need for a professor to present content at class meetings, much of it could be communicated with web pages. The most valuable use of class time is for listening together, with guidance from the professor; for discussing the pieces and readings; and for students' questions.

Testing can be moved to the web if some basic assumptions about it are changed. I used the online quizzes to review factual knowledge, and designed the quizzes to be taken as many times as necessary until the score of 100% was reached, and the quizzes had no weight in the grading scale. Only when they scored 100% would students receive the writing prompts for that week, which were part of the grading scale.

Course Design

The redesign of my music listening course was inspired by innovative course design in the sciences. The studio approach to large classes was developed at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for its introductory physics course. Lectures are minimized; instead , students receive an orientation from the instructor and work independently and in groups with computer-based tutorials. The class convenes as a whole when further explanation is needed. Students have more control over their learning. The courses have been both effective and popular among RPI students. For more on the studio approach at RPI, visit the web site of the Anderson Center for Innovation in Undergraduate Education at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

I adapted the studio approach for my Fall 1997 class, used it again during Fall 1998, and gathered data about it with these questions in mind:

  • How can a professor tap into the students' intense interest in music to help them listen well to a broader range of musics?
  • How can this be done with the large sections typically assigned to music listening classes?
  • Will students be able to handle this much independent work on the web?
  • Will students do this much writing?
  • How will non-majors do in this format compared to majors?

The class met as a whole for the first two weeks, a week at midterm, and the last two weeks. During the rest of the semester the class was divided into thirds, and each student attended once per week, which created a smaller class size more suitable for discussion.

Each week, the students were expected to:

  • read a chapter in David Willoughby's The World of Music (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999; fourth edition) and listen to the corresponding musical examples at home or in the Music Library
  • work with that week's web pages, which contain study questions on the reading, a listening review with links to sound examples on the audio CD, a section on writing mechanics (the class is writing-intensive), and an online quiz
  • take an online quiz which covers factual material from the chapter, listening questions, and a few questions on the writing mechanics topic for that week
  • attend the weekly class meeting, at which I play listening examples, briefly summarize important points, ask for questions from students, and ask discussion questions
  • attend three performances and write a two-page essay about each one
  • take a midterm and final in conventional format

Students may take the online quiz as many times as they need to in order to score 100%; the quiz itself does not count for a grade. Once the student completes the quiz with a score of 100% correct, the web page displays the writing prompts for the week, from which the student selects one for a one-page essay. The essays count for 52% of the grade. A typical writing prompt asks the student to write descriptively about one or more selections from the week's listening, to compare one of the current week's selections to a previous one, or to relate one of the chapter topics to the student's own musical experience.

The grading scale in 1998 was as follows:

weekly written assignments (13 @ 4 pts each)


written assignments based on performances (3 @ 5 pts each)


midterm (15 pts) and final (18 pts)


A = 90-100 B = 80-89 C = 70-79 D = 60-69 F = 59 and below

Since I did not test this approach with a controlled scientific experiment (i.e., teaching one class as a large lecture, the other with the web-assisted approach, using the same textbook, recordings, and tests), the quantitative and qualitative data that follow are not offered as proof that the studio approach is more effective. Instead, this sampling of data on student performance in the course is presented only to suggest a possible correlation between the web-assisted format and student performance and evaluations, and to provide insight into how students worked with the web materials.

A typical week's lesson

The web pages contain text; diagrams; standard musical notation; graphic notation derived from a MIDI sequencer display; links to .vcd files that play CD audio excerpts using CDLink (still available on the web, but no longer supported by the Voyager Company); quizzes that are graded immediately; a form for questions that came to my e-mail.

Each week's page begins with study questions for the Willoughby chapter:

Figure 1 Weekly assignment page

Listening exercises that cue examples from the audio CD in the computer's CD-ROM drive enable students to review as many times as they like. The underlined lyrics in the example below are links to audio CD examples.

Figure 2 Guided Listening

I make limited use of musical notation to bring out details:

Figure 3 Transcription

When the students have reviewed sufficiently, they take the online quiz:

Figure 4 Quiz

The answers can be changed until the student is ready to have the quiz graded:

Figure 5 Grade quiz command

The grading program, written in MacPerl, immediately returns a page that shows which responses are correct:

Figure 6 Graded quiz results

The student is offered the chance to return to the quiz and review the missed items:

Figure 7 Retry quiz

Once the quiz score is 100%, the student gets the writing prompts for the week:

Figure 8 Writing prompts

The complete web materials online

Since web publication removes space constraints, readers may view the complete course materials for fall 1998, which use the fourth edition of David Willoughby's The World of Music and its 2-CD set.

Editor's note: The Society makes the textual and graphic content of this article available as a service to its members, but cannot include the listening examples because of U.S. copyright provisions. Readers who want to hear those audio files will find that all listening examples in this article are taken from the two-CD set that accompanies David Willoughby's The World of Music (4th edition, 1999: McGraw Hill College Div; ISBN: 0075618818 ).

In order to promote the long-term readability of this article, the quizzes are not linked to the automatic grading scripts. Answer keys and essay questions for each quiz may be found here. The MacPerl scripts for grading are available here for those who would like to adapt them locally.

Evaluation results

Course evaluation items that relate to the studio approach and its applicability to other large classes are shown below. The first two items show clearly that students like this course format. Questions 3 and 4 confirm one of my hypotheses about the value of this format for a music listening course: the students use the technology to listen more repeatedly than they would otherwise in class, and they benefit from having quizzes graded immediately. Questions 5 and 6 measure how comfortable the students became with working on the web after taking the class.

In 1997, 46 students out of 66 total participated in the evaluation; in 1998, 46 out of 56 students did. Each item shows the percentage of student responses on a 5-point scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree); each graph refers to the question below it.

Figure 9 Evaluation question 1: I prefer the format of this class to the standard large lecture format.

Figure 10 Evaluation question 2: I would be pleased if more of my large classes used this format.

Figure 11 Evaluation question 3: [The web pages] Helped me learn by listening to musical examples more than once.

Figure 12 Evaluation question 4: [The web pages] Helped me learn by having a quiz that was graded immediately.

Figure 13 Evaluation question 5: I was comfortable using the web before I took this class.

Figure 14 Evaluation question 6: I am comfortable using the web now.

Qualitative evaluations were collected in two ways: from the anonymous evaluation sheets, and from the last written assignment, which asks students to reflect on their learning over the semester. The anonymous evaluations were strongly positive regarding the class format. Students made the following suggestions for improvement:

  • meet twice a week, once for listening and explanation beyond what's provided on the web, and again for discussion
  • adapt CDLink or something similar to Windows platform so that more lab computers can be used (most Windows machines in our labs are not equipped for sound, so this is a problem)
  • adjust number of class meetings to the semester: meet more frequently in the beginning, allow for more independent work towards the end
  • one student said he or she learned more in a lecture setting: "that way I know exactly what is important and what is expected to be known." Each week's web page did begin with a list of study questions for each chapter. Still, this is a useful reminder that the studio approach will not suit all students' learning styles. At the same time, this relatively passive approach ("tell me what's important to know and I'll remember it") is the sort of learning I would like to replace with more active learning experiences.
  • limit the number of times quizzes can be taken, so those who work harder are rewarded appropriately
  • include the number of times students accessed web pages in the grading scale

Statistics on Web use

To arrive at these figures on student web use, I combined the server logs from August-December into one text file in common log format; uploaded it to a mainframe running Unix; used the grep command to search by student name and write each line of the log with that student's name in it to a new file; used grep again remove every line containing an error message from the individual student log file. Finally, I analyzed the individual student log file with Analog, freeware Macintosh log analyzing software, which graphs usage by month, week, and year. The graphs of web use in this paper are screen shots from Analog. The Quid Pro Quo server log sometimes records an error message when the page has been served successfully. Since there is no way to tell from the server log which pages marked with an error message were served correctly, I decided to omit all server logfile lines that contained error messages.

In 1997, students made 19,165 web page accesses; in 1998, they made 21,235. The following graphs show the frequency of use of the web pages by the class as a whole in 1997 and 1998. The monthly graph shows the heaviest use in September and October; November's total was lower, but this month includes a one-week fall break, while December reflects only two weeks of use before the final exam.

Figure 15 Monthly web use, 1997

Figure 16 Monthly web use, 1998

On the daily graph, peaks for Tuesday and Thursday reflect heavier use either as follow-up to Monday and Wednesday's class meetings, or in anticipation of Wednesday's and Friday's meetings.

Figure 17 Weekly web use, 1997

Figure 18 Weekly web use, 1998

The hourly graph shows a steady increase in use during the afternoon, with a secondary peak in the evening. This probably reflects the fact that many students worked in the on-campus labs during the afternoon and evening.

Figure 19 Daily web use, 1997

Figure 20 Daily web use, 1998

Of the 21,235 total web page accesses, 6,945, or 33%, were for taking quizzes. I determined this by searching the total log file for the string "cgi-bin," which signifies a reference to the quiz-grading program.

Correlation between web use and performance in the course

To measure what relationship there might be between using the web and performance in the course, I calculated the Pearson correlation between these two figures for the class as a whole and for majors and nonmajors.

In 1997, total web accesses correlate with final course average with a coefficient of 0.591. Since my understanding of correlation can be summed up in the statement that a correlation of -1 is no correlation at all and +1 is total correlation, I offer the interpretation of Eric Ward, a colleague in psychology: "Most people would call [0.591] a strong, positive, significant correlation" (personal communication). For nonmajors, the correlation is even stronger: 0.647; for majors, it is small: 0.159.

In 1998, the correlation between web use and final course average for the class as a whole is 0.439; for nonmajors: 0.502, and for majors, 0.345.

These correlations can be explained in more than one way. Using the class web pages more may have helped the students learn more. It could also be the case that students who have a higher level of motivation and interest in the course tended to use the web pages more. Music majors did somewhat better in terms of grades, but the most revealing fact here is the correlation between web use and course grade. The 0.647 and 0.503 figures for non-majors in 1997 and 1998, respectively, which are higher than that of the class as a whole (0.591 and 0.439), show that use of the web pages is much more strongly correlated with the course grade for non-majors than it is for majors. Since non-majors are the primary student population served by this kind of course, it makes sense to continue using a framework for learning that helps them do well.

Pedagogical Possibilities

This change in teaching strategy raises a number of questions:

  • Has presentation become the default mode for music listening courses because of large sections and the impracticality, until recently, of self-paced work by each student in a large class?
  • How will the studio approach and similar approaches change the way time and space in the classroom are used? For example, a large section of this course could be scheduled in a three-hour block on one day, in a smaller room, with a third of the class attending each hour. The professor would prepare to teach on one day instead of three, which would free time and mental energy on the other two normal meeting days for other projects.
  • How can writing be used more effectively in music listening classes, now that technology has made it more feasible to assign it in large sections by relieving the professor from the need to present all of the content?
  • How might the studio approach work in the music history sequence for majors, where class time tends to be spent primarily on presentation of content, and in the music theory sequence, where varying individual proficiencies argue for self-paced work?

While the web-based approach described here presents a number of advantages, presenting predetermined content is obviously not the only way to use information technology. Another option is the constructivist or constructionist model, in which students assemble their own knowledge instead of following a plan in a textbook. This approach seems more suited to our present information environment, where information is plentiful and what's needed is skill and judgment in acquiring and critiquing it. A constructivist class could take the form of an exploration of listening and the gathering and critiquing of information from print and electronic sources about a wide variety of musics. The instructor could provide an introduction to music listening, then help students form teams and choose topics related to their interests, and to find and critique information and eventually to go beyond their interests into new kinds of music. They can create something based on their findings and present it to the rest of the class. Students could also produce music with MIDI sequencing software.


The music listening class is often the only occasion in a college student's life when active listening is promoted in academic setting. This makes it all the more urgent to experiment with the music listening class to find ways to engage them in active listening to a diverse selection of challenging music. A web-assisted approach is one effective way to do so. It allows professors to interact with students around music in small groups, and gives students more control over the pacing of their music listening. As demonstrated by the statistics on web page usenot to mention the fact that most students in this class wrote more than 20 pages of prose, which were returned with commentsthis approach can also increase student productivity. It is not suited to all students' learning styles, however, and more needs to be done to ensure that student work (or lack of it) is rewarded appropriately. This course used a homemade web site; one might expect the professionally-designed web sites and listening software that are becoming more common additions to textbook packages to have an effect that is similar or stronger.


updated 1 August 2000

5156 Last modified on October 17, 2018