Assessing Prior Knowledge in General Music
If you are a music instructor, then you know how difficult and intimidating it can be when you enter a new classroom for the first time. You have no idea where the students' previous teacher left off, and you have no idea what your students might already know and where the gaps in their knowledge might lie.
This is why many music teachers like to begin by assessing prior knowledge when they enter a new classroom. Why is this assessment important? Usually, it is because this knowledge enables you to:
- Place an emphasis on filling in gaps
- Correct any misconceptions
- Raise awareness of the different levels of understanding in your classroom
- Build connections between what was learned with the previous teacher and what you are teaching.
Initial assessments can help you get to know your students and their general grasp of the subject matter. However, it's also important to realize that assessing what your students know is an ongoing process. It's impossible to discover everything that they know or don't know in a single exercise, so it makes sense to do some assessing as you progress through your lesson plans.
Make Your Lesson Plans
Many teachers who are going into a new classroom feel a certain reluctance to make lesson plans. They think that they can't know what they are going to teach until they have a better idea of what their students have already learned.
If you are an experienced music educator, then you probably have a pretty good idea of which concepts are introduced at each grade level. Moreover, it is likely that the school district or another administrative body has defined certain learning goals for each grade level. Between your own experience and district requirements, you already have a pretty good idea of not only what your students probably learned last year but also what you can expect to teach them this year.
This means that in general, there is no need to delay making your lesson plans at the beginning of a new session. Plan for each grade level that you will be teaching, taking into account how frequently you will be seeing them.
With your age and developmentally appropriate lesson plans in place, you'll still be in an excellent position to learn more about your students and discover what they remember from their previous classroom experiences.
While it generally is smart to have your lessons planned in advance, it further makes sense to not assume what your students do or do not know. Accordingly, when beginning a new unit, it is sensible to start with a review of the basics that they may have encountered in an earlier class. Fundamental skills like rhythm, tempo and pitch are frequently covered and built upon year after year. This means that it's perfectly appropriate to go over the basics before new material is introduced.
Students usually derive great benefit from a review of earlier material, especially if they are coming back from a significant break. If the class seems to pick up on the review material quickly and easily, then it's time to move on to new material. However, it is essential for the teacher to watch for signs that the students are less than confident about the subject matter that is being reviewed. If this seems to be the case, then it's completely appropriate to spend more time on reviewing the basics before diving into the new stuff.
Experienced teachers know how perceptive even the youngest students can be. This means that it is never a good idea make comments about needing to catch up students to get them to where they need to be. Students who perceive that their new teacher is in any way looking down on them, their knowledge or the ability of an earlier teacher who was probably beloved and respected will be resistant to the new teacher's methods.
Above all, a music teacher wants to develop positive relationships with all students. This is much harder to do, if not impossible, if you start off on the wrong foot.
If you are reviewing information with a student and are surprised to find that the material seems unfamiliar, try to suppress your surprise. It is impossible to know why the student doesn't know the material that you are asking about. Even if they have learned the subject matter already, the student may not be able to provide answers because of factors such as:
- The vocabulary used by the old teacher versus the new teacher;
- The student having an "off" day;
- The material being presented differently than what the student is accustomed to; or
- The student simply forgetting some details after an absence from musical learning.
When it comes right down to it, it is virtually impossible for a music teacher in a new setting to assess the efficacy of their predecessor because one or more of the above factors may be affecting the student's performance.
This is why it is smart to avoid comments like, "I can't believe your other teacher didn't cover this," or "We have a lot of work to do to get you up to speed." Such observations are counterproductive and may put your new students on the defensive.
Focus on Goals
Even if you eventually get the sense that a prior music teacher was not doing an adequate job, it is critical to leave the past in the past. Your job is to focus on the academic goals for the current session.
Accordingly, it is a great idea to present the class with a goal for the term or module. You might tell them that at the end of the module, they will each have composed a song. Undoubtedly, many of them will be dubious. Maybe they haven't developed much skill with reading music yet, and some of them will definitely be intimidated by the thought of composition.
It is your object as the teacher to break down these overarching goals into easier-to-understand pieces. In the above example, you might start with a comprehensive review of musical notes, the staff and other related items. Next, you can ask your students to compose an eight count pattern, a melodic phrase of their own creation.
By using these smaller steps, you are building up your students to reach the ultimate goal of composing a song, even one that is only eight or 16 measures long.
For this goal-setting approach to be successful, it is crucial for the teacher to have a firm grasp on the subject matter that is developmentally appropriate for the students. Moreover, the teacher needs to be willing to alter their approach if the students do not seem to be understanding the material. It further is helpful if the teacher is crystal clear about the most important concepts to be learned in the module. Once these are clearly communicated and reiterated, students will begin to see the objective themselves.
Have a Quiz
When you start a new module that you believe will build on prior knowledge that your students already possess, it can be helpful to start things off with a quiz. It can be really short. The answers that your students give to a handful of true/false or multiple choice questions can be really revealing.
The results of the quiz may help you to see what you need to emphasize in the upcoming module. You might consider giving the quiz again at the end of the module to see how everyone has improved.
If you would like, you even can create on online quiz at platforms like Pear Deck or Quizizz. Kids love being able to use technology when learning about music.
Look to Prodigies for Inspiration
Music is a complex subject, but that is one of the things that makes it endlessly fascinating. Students have an entire world to explore, and each one will have certain areas of knowledge that they hold from earlier learning and other areas where more information is needed.
Assessing just where each student stands is not easy for music teachers. However, if you remain attuned to the questions your students are asking and how well they appear to understand the subject matter, you will be well on your way.
Let Prodigies help you to introduce musical fundamentals in your classroom. With our video lessons and supporting materials, we provide an engaging platform where learning happens every day.
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