Preparing Music Theory Students for the Big Exam: Strategies for Building Learning-Centered Study Guides

As a music theory instructor, I value assessments that inspire students to put theoretical concepts into practice. Diverse opportunities for student evaluation—composition, quizzes, games, class discussion, group work, and more—encourage critical thinking and fluency among individual learners. But faced with an exam, with their grade as the most substantial motivator, students often experience anxiety and doubt that may have a detrimental effect on their preparations. Rather than viewing the exam as the opportunity to demonstrate the hows and whys of music theory, they may indiscriminately cram contextually limited whats. This latter approach affords music theory a limited degree of personal relevance and eschews its potential as a highly nuanced process of critical thinking and interpretation. But when students feel left in the dark about an upcoming exam, this may be the best way they know how to prepare—by aiming to regurgitate knowledge without digging deeper into the nuts and bolts of the concepts.

As Ken Bain describes in his iconic What the Best College Teachers Do, instructors should not “…use the examination as a game in which students spend their preparation time trying to predict what the teacher might ask” (Bain 2004, 160). A more effective and enriching approach is one that “…help[s] students understand concepts that will allow them to solve the problems rather than merely emphasizing the mechanical practice of problem-solving” (Bain 2004, 160-161). By emphasizing transparency of test structure and content, I hope to promote critical thinking and informed problem-solving. This transparency involves comprehensive study guides that are distributed to students one to two weeks before an exam, and they are thoroughly discussed and referenced in the classes leading up to the test. I believe providing students with robust study guides as described below may help alleviate test-related anxiety and increase success by perpetuating a learning-centered rather than a grade-centered mindset.1Bain describes the difference between the performance-based (grades-based) and learning-based approaches in Chapter 7 of his book, “How Do They Evaluate Their Students and Themselves?”, pp. 150 – 172.

I begin my study guides with the basics: the important logistics of the exam, including date, time, and place. If there is anything atypical about the exam (i.e. a different location than the normal classroom) this should be included here as well. I include specific information on what materials the student may bring to the exam room, such as index cards, spare pencils, or extra manuscript paper. If I will be providing any materials (blue books, pencils, and so on) I will include that information here as well.

The essential framework of my study guide is an outline of exam components. This is a breakdown of each section of the exam by structure, content, number of questions, and points allotted. Attached to each section is the corresponding textbook chapter or other reference material, so students can review as needed. Accompanying sections with short-answer, listening, or other open-ended questions are grading rubrics that clearly articulate how these student responses will be graded. Giving students access to the rubric for these types of questions is a great way to focus their study efforts and may help avoid ineffective cramming.

With additions to this basic framework, the study guide becomes a springboard for students to prepare based on their individual strengths and weaknesses. Under each section heading of the exam, I provide at least three sample questions. These questions are presented exactly as they will appear on the exam. For instance, to prepare for a chord spelling section of an exam, the method(s) in each sample question—spelling from Roman numerals? figured bass? lead sheets?—as well as the appearance of each—different clefs? keyboard or chorale style? – will anticipate the requirements of the corresponding test section. For analysis-based exam components, I choose a sample excerpt that closely matches the corresponding excerpt on the test in terms of texture, number of chords to identify, and levels of harmonic complexity and ornamentation.

Along with the sample questions in each outlined section, I provide strategies and advice. I identify and briefly summarize at least two strategies for the questions in each category, calling upon memory aids and mnemonic devices where possible. I try to anticipate student questions based on homework and in-class performance and tailor my suggestions to the progress I have seen in that particular class. A good portion of these strategies are demonstrated visually. As Barbara Gross Davis writes, “…don’t tell students when you can show them—and don’t show them when they can show themselves” (Davis 2009, 264). I favor diagrams and visuals over prose because they can convey a large amount of information in an efficient and concise way, and—if done effectively—can be more accessible and less intimidating to students than a wall of text. Charts, tables, diagrams, and other visual summaries are invaluable components of an exam study guide.

Another way to facilitate successful student preparation and a learning-centered approach to test-taking is by involving active learning opportunities—having students learn and understand by doing. While sample questions are effective, sample answers invite critical thinking and self-reflection. For open-ended answer sections, a sample answer with the associated grading rubric allows students to evaluate an error-laden answer that the instructor can create with specific learning objectives in mind. Sample answers, therefore, serve a dual function: they serve as an error detection exercise, while prompting students to think about a particular question or problem from the point of view of a particular rubric and, by extension, certain crucial learning goals.


Video tutorials offer another way to engage with students directly. Hyperlinking instructor-created video tutorials to specific sample questions offers students different ways to work through the study guide on their own; they can solve the sample questions and access the tutorials to check their work, or they can watch the tutorial to clarify a concept and work on a specific problem along with the instructor. I include at least two video tutorials on final exam study guides, and at least one of these is an analysis tutorial. It may seem time-consuming for the instructor to add this additional component, but tutorials are easy to create. One simple approach is to use the Quicktime screen record feature (with narration) while working through sample questions or analysis excerpts in Sibelius. Other active learning strategies include online review quizzes and games. There are a number of ways to build quizzes through learning management systems like Canvas, but I prefer using Flipquiz and Factile. With Factile, instructors can create Jeopardy-style review games that feature a variety of gameplay options. The interactivity of these games gives them an edge over sample questions while facilitating collaborative group review.

This is just an overview of how a comprehensive study guide with active learning opportunities can promote successful, strategic test-taking. Of course, the unfortunate reality remains that some students will ignore or underutilize the study guide in advance of an exam. But my hope is that providing students with these learning tools will help them cultivate a learning-centered approach to studying. It’s not just about the grades, but about becoming fluent, confident, and capable.



Bain describes the difference between the performance-based (grades-based) and learning-based approaches in Chapter 7 of his book, “How Do They Evaluate Their Students and Themselves?”, pp. 150 – 172.



Bain, Ken. 2004. What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Davis, Barbara Gross. 2009. Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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Last modified on Wednesday, 15/04/2020

Sabrina Clarke

Sabrina Clarke, PhD, is a full-time instructor of music theory and composition at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Her research explores issues of narrative, temporality, and gender in twentieth-century music, especially in the work of composers Luigi Dallapiccola and Amy Beach.

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