Music theory for the 21st-century classroom: UMass prof builds course around teamwork

Thursday, February 04, 2016
Ah, the freshman class at the big state U — the one with 300-plus students crowded into a lecture hall as the professor delivers the day’s lesson from a stage, perhaps with a few visual backdrops to try and make the material more understandable.

As Jason Hooper sees things, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Hooper, who teaches a number of music theory and aural skills courses at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is taking a different approach this year in his Music Theory I class. He does his share of lecturing and leading the class from the front. But the students, predominantly freshmen, are studying much of the material in small groups, using one another as sounding boards and sources of knowledge.

It’s an approach known generally as team-based learning (TBL), and though it’s not unheard of in the music field — Hooper jokes that TBL in music classes, and in various technical fields, has become a bit “trendy” at some schools — he says he believes his approach is unique in that he’s grouped his students into small teams that are working together for the duration of the course.

The overall goal, he says, is to make the coursework more accessible, have students involved with each other and actively solving problems, and to free up classroom time so he and his two teaching assistants (TAs) can give students more individual attention.

Setting up such a program had been a goal for awhile for Hooper, who has taught music theory in a more traditional lecture format but felt something was lacking; he introduced the model last spring for his Music Theory II class.

“I thought there could be a way to make everything more engaging,” he said in a recent interview. “There are limitations to the traditional lecture model, not just for students but for faculty.”

It helps that most of the music theory classes are held in one of the university’s newest buildings, the Integrative Learning Center. Students sit in small groups at round tables, rather than in individual seats in rows, and the classroom sports some hi-tech tools to aid Hooper’s approach — numerous flat-screen TVs on the walls, laptop computers (connected to the TVs) at each table, microphones, a video recorder and an electric keyboard.

As one example, Hooper opens some of his classes with quick multiple choice quizzes that students do on an “i>Clicker” system in which the answers are quickly tabulated on the TV screens.

A new model

Given his class meets Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 a.m., Hooper said, “It would be easy for [students] not to be that engaged with the material, that early in the morning. But when they need to rely on each other, when they’re part of this social dynamic group, it makes for a different class.”

Hooper, who’s been at UMass since 2009 — he also leads graduate courses in more advanced music analysis — developed his new class model with a Fellowship for Innovative Teaching from the university’s Center for Teaching and Faculty Development. He and 12 other UMass professors, primarily from the science and math fields, were each given a $1,500 grant and also met several times to discuss ways to develop more student-centered curricula.

He stresses that he’s greatly benefitted from staff at the UMass center and from fellow faculty members, like biochemistry professor David Gross, who are also involved with TBL.

In essence, Hooper says, the model for his class has been “flipped.” In a more typical music theory class, the teacher lectures twice a week, while TAs lead small lab sections on a third day. New material is introduced in the classroom, and students do their homework assignments outside of class on their own.

Now, Hooper introduces much of the new material through outside reading assignments and short online videos that he designs. He also gives lectures on Mondays to cover new topics in more depth. Then, the 60 or so students work together on Wednesdays and Fridays, in teams of three to five people, to solve problems together, with Hooper and his TAs rotating through the room to answer questions.

Toward the end of the class, each team shares its work with the others; they’re also expected to develop their own short classical compositions by the end of the semester. Students take a traditional mid-term exam and a final on the own.

That arrangement gives students additional incentive to come to class prepared, Hooper notes.

“When they know they have to answer to each other, they want to be on top of the material, even at 8 in the morning,” he said with a chuckle.

A cooperative approach

Hooper, who studied music performance (trombone) as an undergraduate at Indiana University, later became more interested in music theory and history and went on to get a master’s degree in music theory, also at Indiana University. He’s currently working on his doctorate through City University of New York, studying in particular the work of Heinrich Schenker (1859-1935), a seminal Austrian music theorist and composer.

Music theory — very broadly, the study of fundamental elements of music such as rhythm, harmony and form, as well as analysis of composition and other practices — is a bedrock subject for students in Hooper’s class, who are all music majors. He notes it’s just the first of several theory classes they need to take, such as Music Theory II, which he’ll teach again next spring.

That said, it’s not necessarily the most riveting subject for musicians, many of whom are more interested in performing or composing. Anthony Ferreira, a pianist and double bass player, says he had some trepidation coming into Hooper’s class. In an email, he noted that he took a music theory class last year as a high school senior that was “a standard lecture model, and that made a notoriously dry subject even more dry.”

But so far, Ferreira added, the UMass class has been a big improvement.

“I love it,” Ferreira said. “Not only is it simply more fun to work in groups ... but it allows the stronger students to help the weaker students. In that way, the stronger students reinforce their own understanding while the weaker students feel better about asking classmates for help.”

Hooper has also constructed the student teams with an eye to getting class members better acquainted — a bit of social engineering, if you will. He contacted his students by email last summer to learn about their musical backgrounds, whether they considered themselves “leaders” or “followers,” and where they were from.

Using that information, he’s grouped students with more extensive musical experience with those who have less, and he’s brought students from different places together — say, students from Boston with some from the western part of the state — while also putting “leaders” with one another and vice versa with “followers.”

His reasoning for the latter choice? “It forces the leaders to work cooperatively, while followers can’t wait for someone else in the group to take the initiative,” he said.

The plan seems to be working. Julia Maloof, a saxophonist, said she’d never taken a course based on group work and is enjoying the experience, including learning to understand the coursework “in a more hands-on way. ... It’s also more difficult to go over the material with other students instead of a teacher, so I would look at it as more challenging, but a more rewarding way of learning.”

And as a music education major, Maloof added, “It’s fascinating to see how this course is run.”

Gloria Chang, a vocalist and flute player, also says she’s found working in a small group very helpful, especially “if your groupmates know the material, so if one is stuck we can help each other out. After all, the highest form of learning is teaching.”

Hooper intends to teach his Music Theory II class next semester in the same way. Not every step has been smooth sailing — he notes that some students, at least at first, have been uncomfortable with the TBL model — but he says the overall trend has been in the right direction.

“The parameters [of the class] are pretty controlled, ” he said. “I like to think this is making their experience more rewarding, more challenging, and ultimately more interesting.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.