Giving and Receiving Feedback: A Feature of a Musical Life

Are you looking for a way to engage students in developing disciplinary skills and a reflective approach to their learning? Andrea Creech, a professor at McGill’s Schulich School of Music, did so using peer assessment (PA) in the performance strategies course she taught online to around 40 students. In today’s post, she shares how she implemented PA, reflects on the need for student to develop their ability to both give and receive feedback, and offers advice to other instructors considering implementing PA in their courses.

Could you describe your course?  

It’s an undergraduate music performance psychology course that focuses on topics like stress, anxiety, achieving flow in performance, and achieving optimal performance—if such a thing exists. We look at how students can develop resiliency in performance. We also look at strategies for practice and, more widely, for preparation and organization of daily life to help mitigate and live with music performance anxiety. 

Why did you implement PA in this course?  

Developing skill in giving and receiving feedback is important because arguably a career in music revolves around receiving feedback on a continual basis. Feedback comes in different forms and from different sources—audiences, teachers, conductors, peers. It’s important for musicians to think about the purpose of feedback, who guides the feedback process, ways to frame feedback, and reasons for giving feedback. It can be crushing if you don’t have the skills as the receiver of feedback to be able to use it in an effective way. 

The assignment objectives were to develop students’ abilities to:  

  • engage in critical reflection  
  • engage in collaborative dialogue 
  • provide constructive and respectful formative feedback 
  • respond to formative feedback 

What was the assignment?  

PA was part of a learning portfolio that students developed over the semester, with small weekly tasks. Each student identified a question about performance that they were curious to explore. Then, they carried out their inquiry: articulating a problem, identifying relevant performance psychology strategies, implementing those strategies, and giving a performance. The portfolio documented their inquiry through reflections on their progress and background literature related to the performance psychology strategies they identified. 

The PA part of the portfolio took place twice: halfway through the semester and at the end of the semester. The week before the performances, each student thought about what they would perform and wrote a portfolio reflection regarding what they wanted feedback on. In groups of four or five, each student did an individual five-minute performance via Zoom. Students who couldn’t perform live brought a recording of their performance to the session. Then, group members gave verbal feedback on the performances—that was where PA came in. Students then synthesized the feedback and posted it in each group’s myCourses discussion area.  

How did students prepare to give and receive feedback? 

Prior to the performances, we had class time devoted to looking at feedback practices and principles of good feedback. I introduced the critical response process developed by Liz Lerman. It’s a highly structured four-step process for giving and receiving feedback, where the feedback receiver has an active role in deciding what feedback they’ll receive. It has been used in music extensively. The critical response process turns the traditional master-apprentice model on its head. Rather than going into a learning and teaching context as a student expecting to receive a diagnosis about your musical capacity, with the critical response process you (as a performer) have to decide what kind of feedback you’re seeking and what information you’re looking for, from the listeners. Then, you ask your listeners open questions. Near the end of the process, the responsibility shifts to the feedback giver to raise issues they observed that might have been outside the parameters you identified. But the crucial thing is that the feedback giver says, “I also have some feedback about X, Y, or Z. Would you like to hear it?” Never once have I known someone to say, “No, I don’t want to hear it.” Because by that point you’ve built up a rapport, and you have a trusting relationship within which you can exchange views. 

How was the PA assessed? 

PA took place twice, and each time it was worth 16% of students’ grade: 8% for giving feedback and 8% for reflecting individually. The assessment had two parts:  

#1 Giving feedback: Following the oral discussion, each student wrote their feedback for each performer in myCourses. I was able to assess the quality of their feedback based on evidence of: 

  • their engagement in the process 
  • their application of principles for effective feedback previously discussed 
  • their ability to give feedback in an open and constructive way that prompts reflective thinking (rather than giving overly directive feedback) 

#2 Reflecting individually: Each student submitted a written self-reflection on the process, which included comments on:  

  • whether they had received the feedback they were seeking 
  • ways in which the feedback was useful (or not) 
  • how they felt the performance had gone in relation to the strategies they had been implementing in their inquiry 

The students stayed in their same groups for the second round of performances, so they had an opportunity to demonstrate a sense of progression: they could see what had changed in the way that they could give feedback, and the way that they performed and received feedback.  

How did students respond to the assignment generally and to the PA in particular?  

Students said they valued the assignment; they were positive about it. They’d been so isolated and were just happy to get together and play their instruments for somebody, even over Zoom. Most of them were able to relate that experience to the performance strategies. That was the aim—for it to be a checkpoint where they could pause and see if the strategies they’d been implementing had any kind of influence on their actual performance. Some of them had revelations about the way they were approaching performance.  

The first time the students did PA, many told me they felt a bit reticent and uncomfortable giving feedback because they didn’t feel qualified. Many said something like, “Well, I’m a violinist. I can’t give feedback to an oboe player.” We all acknowledged that each student has a teacher and their role was not to step into the shoes of the teacher, but rather to provide feedback they felt able to provide. I think one of the things they learned was that they really did have something valuable to say, and that there was scope for giving feedback to and receiving feedback from each other.  

What would you say to colleagues considering implementing PA in their courses? 

Anyone with a role in music gives and receives feedback on a continual basis. It’s a feature of a musical life. I would advocate spending time getting students to think about feedback, the role it plays in their learning, and their responsibility in that process. 

Closing thoughts:  

  • Students are a valuable resource for each other because they’re proximal models: they’re often close to each other in terms of their capacities and life experience. Sometimes they can offer perspectives to each other that a professor can’t. 
  • You must lay the groundwork for PA. Students tend to be hard on themselves, and sometimes hard on each other. We’re not born knowing how to give and receive feedback, so we need support to do that effectively. 

Image credit: Marius Masalar on Unsplash

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