How to engage students while taking time for individuals?
September 1, 2010 3:37 PM   Subscribe

I'm teaching a college course where I have to lecture to a full class, yet use portions of the class time to work with smaller groups while some people sit around, waiting. How do I not waste their time, or make them feel disengaged from the course?

I teach a woodwind methods course to undergraduates as a graduate student at a large college of music. The basic gist of the course is that we cover the basics of playing the woodwind instruments, and over the course of the year, each student will get the opportunity to play all 5 major woodwind instruments (flute, oboe, clarinet, sax, bassoon) for several weeks.

The problem I'm running into is this - we only have so many instruments, and given that, not everyone in my class of 17 can be on the same instrument at the same time. So, when I teach (for example) something about flute technique, only 4-5 students out of the class will actually have something in their hands on which to practice it. Whether it's fingerings, embouchure, or anything else, only that portion of the class will get the chance to work on it while everyone else just listens and jots things down.

The biggest complaint I've heard about other undergraduates who have taken this course before is that they hour and a half drags slowly when the lecturer takes 15 minutes to work on individual things with a certain group while everyone else just sits there. I'm required by the higher ups to have an attendance policy that makes every person be there for every class, so I can't work with the flutes one day, then move down the line. They'll all need all of the information eventually, but it seems so criminally inefficient, but it's been this way for as long as anyone can remember. No matter what, there will be a time when I'll have to help someone individually with their embouchure/hand position/something, and everyone else will be sitting there, glazing over.

As of right now, for example, I'm trying to do my best with what I have. I did a lecture on assembling all of the instruments, and those with the instruments assembled theirs while I discussed them. So flutes assembled when I discussed flutes, and the other 14 people just watched and took notes. I did do a switcheroo or two at the very end of the class, where everyone had to pass their instruments to someone else. The issue is going to be less easy to solve as they begin playing more (due to sanitary issues, etc etc).

The closest non-musical analogy I can think of would be like trying to teach a class on programming with 5 kids in the front having computers, and everyone else having to listen to me talk about it while they actually do it. And then, 3 weeks later, new people get to use the computers, but we may be onto another topic by then.

What am I missing? How do I make this a less miserable experience? Have you ever been in a learning situation like this before? What did your professor/teacher do to make this more palatable? What would you do in my situation?
posted by SNWidget to Education (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
First of all, can you ask everyone to bring their own mouthpieces, to deal with the sanitary considerations?
Also, break the students into smaller groups, so you have 2-3 students for each instrument. Then you can demonstrate something to the entire class and then have them practice in groups and correct each other while you walk around to each group and address the questions of the entire group. If you know a bit about who has prior experience with a particular instrument, divide the experienced people into different groups. With this method, the students will help teach each other during the down time and they will feel less like they are sitting around twiddling their thumbs.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 3:58 PM on September 1, 2010

I have two thoughts.

First, is anyone in your department going to care if you break the class into subclasses? If you really can't get to people and there's a logical and pretty consistent amount of time with the groups, then I don't see why class couldn't officially be at 10 but some people get to come at 10:30 and some at 11.

Second, and if the first thing just won't fly for whatever reason, make sure that you switch up who gets to go first. Especially if people can leave when you're done with them. I can't imagine how much of a pain it would be to see the people from the first group you work with get to leave earlier than me every time just because their group is first. Especially if my group is last.

I thought of something else while I was typing. Is there a way to get more instruments? Encourage people to rent them? You could also just make something close out of PVC pipe so they can at least practice fingering while another student watches to see if they're doing it right.
posted by theichibun at 3:58 PM on September 1, 2010

When I took these classes as part of my undergraduate music education program, I appreciated teachers talking about teaching tips. In other words, a flute class wasn't just about how to play the flute, but about how to teach the flute.

In that regard, keep the non-players engaged with pedagogy questions. "What is good about Cletus's posture? What problems will Mary have if she develops these posture habits?" etc etc.

As soon as possible, I would try to get everyone on an instrument and read through some (easy!) stuff. Basically, just treat it like a band class where you have all woodwinds. I know that this can't happen until everyone has a few notes under their belts, but it will work.

Also, sucker some undergrad music ed / performance students into coming in to help out. It's great experience for them (even the performance students are trying to develop private teaching chops) and it's a good way to collaborate.

Hope this helps! Email if you have other questions?
posted by rossination at 4:00 PM on September 1, 2010

Response by poster: martinx - I thought about having the groups work on teaching each other, and I'm definitely going to do that. I can do a lot of the class in the larger lecture, and then let them break down into groups for a portion of the class.

Getting everyone their own mouthpiece won't work, though, because of the expense. They do have to have their own reeds, which means that for oboe/bassoon, they can try their embouchures.

Part of my problem is that I'm still having trouble visualizing what my "standard" class period will look like.

rossination - That's what I'm basically teaching it for - music ed folks, of which I am one (at the graduate level). I'm doing my best to keep it out of the "YOU MUST BE AN EXPERT FLAUTIST" and more in the "here's how you fix sounds, adjust things, etc etc." Good example of getting everyone else involved by commenting on pedagogy issues. I'd just heard so many complaints about previous teachers that I was afraid of falling into the same traps.

If you don't mind me asking, what else made that class more engaging to you?
posted by SNWidget at 4:06 PM on September 1, 2010

Here's an option: establish "practice time", where students are expected to practice other instruments (specific ones, not random ones) while you teach a smaller group things about one instrument. Don't say you're doing this to prevent boredom; say you're doing it because you recognize the importance of practice, and how hard it is for students to find practice time, so you're baking practice time into the class.

So let's say you spend the first several classes teaching techniques that are important for all instruments, and students play whatever instrument is available (and pass them around.) It'll certainly be a good opportunity for them to learn how to clean spit valves, and get a feel for what instrument they most look forward to playing.

Then, you start "flute week" or somesuch. Students are broken up into teams, and have the opportunity to practice while you teach one team some flute specifics using a single flute passed among them. Then you move on to the next team, but give the first team all but one flute so they can practice what they just learned. Repeat ad infinitum.

Is this ideal? No; in a perfect setting, you'd have all the instruments you need. Still, teaching students to get into the routine of practicing regularly and seeing the benefits of that practice without having to self-motivate outside of the classroom is a really great thing to be teaching.
posted by davejay at 4:23 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: davejay - Good idea, especially as they can't check out instruments to practice with while I'm not in office hours.
posted by SNWidget at 4:44 PM on September 1, 2010

Can you put them in groups and assign each person an active role, where only one person's role is to actually have their hands on the instrument? I'm not a musician so I don't really know what the other roles could be, but basically, you want to give them a problem to solve or a question to answer, rather than just telling them to "watch" or "take notes." For example: in each group, Person 1 handles the instrument and practices fingering, Person 2 has to observe or deduce what will be the easiest mistakes / most common pitfalls in learning proper fingering, Person 3 has to sketch an original visual aid for teaching fingering to beginner students, Person 4 has to observe what happens to Person 1's embouchere while they focus on fingering, etc.

Or put them into groups where one person gets to handle the instrument and everyone else has to collaborate on a related task that depends, in some way, on actively observing the first person's efforts.

If you do this kind of thing, it's important to save time at the end of class for the non-instrument-handling students to "report out" the results of their observations. (Not everyone has to speak, but you should get at least one person from each group to talk to you / the class.) Or if they're doing written work, you can collect it. But if you give them a task to keep them engaged without allowing for any "output," and without reinforcing what you think they should learn from it, they will perceive it as busy-work and resent it.
posted by Orinda at 6:21 PM on September 1, 2010

This sounds like an admin problem. Like the administration of the college is too cheap to provide the resources to really teach this course properly, and are making the instructors take up the slack for them. Sorry, you know that.

Politely suggest to your admin the wisdom of smaller class sizes, before the students paying their salaries start to get grumpy. Good luck.
posted by ovvl at 8:35 PM on September 1, 2010

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