General Universities Today

Re-designing a course with equity in mind

Photo of Professor Julie Cumming
Image credit: Owen Egan

Are you curious about teaching strategies and assessment strategies that can promote equity while at the same time supporting students’ learning? In this blog post, Professor Julie Cumming shares some of her strategies for the course Western Musical Traditions (MUHL 186). The course has around 85 students, and it is students’ first music history course in their program. During our conversation, four of the strategies that she uses particularly caught my attention because they can be adapted across disciplines and be used in classes both large and small. Those four strategies are (1) fostering diversity in course materials, (2) assigning study sheets, (3) encouraging class participation—with a “Tap-Out Policy,” and (4) creating a tutorial presentation assignment. Read on to learn more about these strategies and their benefits. While you read, consider: Would any of these strategies work well in your class, too?

1 Teaching strategy: Fostering diverse course materials

When you think of music history, which composers first come to mind? Many may think of composers like Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. Yet the names of quite a few composers whose works feature in the Western Musical Traditions course may be less familiar. A few years ago, Prof. Cumming decided to revisit the choice of composers whose work the course features, aiming to increase gender balance amongst the composers represented. This was motivated by discussions with her daughter, Ariadne Lih. Prof. Cumming identified compositions that would allow students to achieve the course learning outcomes, while also increasing the number of female composers’ works included.

Students now study 18 pieces from medieval to modern times. From the first piece that students study by La Comtessa de Dia (a trobairitz or female troubadour in the 12th century) to the last piece they study by Ana Sokolović (a composer who teaches at the Université de Montréal), 10 of the pieces are composed by women. The students thus learn the history of Western music as told largely by women composers. They develop an understanding of how different types of music work, and recognize selected genres and styles of Western classical music over a span of nine hundred years. Students explore the cultural context and consider how female and male composers’ educational opportunities and other opportunities may have been similar or different at varied points in history.

Benefit: The inclusion of women composers allows women students to see that there is a place for them in the field of music. Curating course materials so that students can see aspects of their identities reflected in those course materials can help support students’ sense of belonging in their chosen discipline (DePaul, 2022; Marchesani & Adams, 1992).

2 Assessment strategy: Assigning study sheets

Another strategy is supporting student note taking and studying through assigning study sheets. Study sheets are based on a template that provides students with an organized way to listen to a composition, and identify and document key musical features. To support students with this assignment, they first listen to a composition in class and fill in the study sheet template. Students have a list of music vocabulary with definitions that they can consult as they fill it in. Then, they submit their study sheet. If students submit study sheets completed according to the template, they receive full credit for the assignment. Afterwards, they receive a completed model study sheet to check their work against, and to inform their preparation of study sheets for future compositions. Students are expected to complete a study sheet for each new composition they listen to in class throughout the term. Students are invited to check with a TA or peer mentor to ensure they are including the right information. Study sheets help students meet several of the course learning outcomes. These learning outcomes include recognizing selected genres and styles of western classical music, developing a sophisticated technical vocabulary for talking about music, and knowing how to take good notes and prepare for midterm and final exams.

Benefits: First, rather than making assumptions about students’ musical backgrounds, this strategy introduces students to a basic approach for analyzing compositions and the chance to practice using the discipline-specific vocabulary they’re learning. They build upon this approach and vocabulary throughout the course. Second, this strategy does not assume that all first-year students have study strategies already in place. Instead, it supports students’ development of a study strategy they can use to prepare for exams.

3 Assessment strategy: Encouraging class participation—with a Tap-Out Policy

An additional strategy is encouraging class participation by clearly describing expectations and including a Tap-Out Policy. As part of a participation grade, Prof. Cumming calls on each student once in the term during lecture and asks them to answer a question, or discuss the answer to a question. She has drawn names out of a bag when teaching in person, or checked names off a list when teaching online. Though students are sometimes scared of being called on at the beginning of the term, they become more comfortable as they understand that it’s okay if they don’t know the answer. They can talk it through with the instructor, describing how they might figure out the answer. While she poses the question to an individual student and then works towards an answer with them, the other students can learn from the experience as well; they’re present and working towards the answer, too.

At some point during the term, each student is also required to participate by singing the first phrase of a piece they have already studied in class (their pick). Prof. Cumming explains, “What does it mean to know a piece of music? When they can sing it, it’s theirs.” Some students perform the musical phrase together—say, in a duet or a quartet. If students are too anxious to sing in front of classmates, they can sing in her office instead.

Recognizing that there are days where life beyond the classroom may negatively influence students’ ability to contribute during class, she instituted a Tap-Out Policy, described in her course outline:

Excerpt from Professor Cumming's course outline outlining her Tap Out Policy

Class participation with a Tap-Out Policy supports all the course learning outcomes by promoting students’ engagement with diverse questions and ideas that arise, and building in opportunities for them to sing selected passages from memory.

Benefits: The Tap-Out Policy supports students’ well-being and academic success by ensuring that students’ participation grade is not lowered when students feel mentally unwell. Meanwhile, the clearly phrased class participation expectations help ensure that all students understand what is expected and have an opportunity to contribute during class; they also help foster a high level of student engagement.

4 Assessment strategy: Creating a tutorial presentation assignment

A final strategy is the tutorial presentation assignment. For this assignment, each student does a five-minute presentation in their tutorial section on a musical piece that they care about. It can be any piece, from Japanese music to video game music to Shostakovich. When students present on their piece they are the experts, and they use the skills and vocabulary they have learned in the course and apply them to a new piece.

Benefit: This assignment further expands the repertory of music heard in the course, making it more inclusive.

Have you integrated equitable teaching and assessment strategies in your course? TLS is always keen to learn what strategies instructors are using. Reach out to TLS and let us know!

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