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Ease Student Fears of Subjective Grading in the Arts

When student performers voiced concerns that this instructor’s musical preferences could unfairly impact their grades, the educator created a new approach to evaluations.

Educator

Sooah Park, DMA

Assistant Professor of Music, University of Texas at Tyler

DMA, MM, and BM

Sooah Park’s YouTube Channel

Sooah Park’s Website

Sooah Park discovered her passion for music early—for singing, in particular. In her native Korea, gifted musicians often start studying toward musical careers at a young age, which is exactly what she did. An avid music student since her teens, Park went on to earn music degrees from Eastman School of Music (University of Rochester) and the University of Texas at Austin, and her operatic career took her around the world with performances in Brazil, Mexico, Finland, and more.

Her love of singing organically grew into a love of teaching. “When people saw me singing onstage, they naturally wanted to study voice with me,” she says. She has found the role of vocal instructor to be exceptionally fulfilling.

“It is the greatest reward when students come from confusion and frustration in singing to producing healthy tones and experiencing freedom from old habits,” she says. “They suddenly realize that what they couldn’t do 2 years ago, they can now do with no problem. That’s my true passion and inspiration.”

Challenge: The subjective nature of grading in the arts

For performers, a critical review can be difficult to hear. After all, what information is the critic using to create this review? What if the performer and the critic simply have different tastes? What if the performer has made great strides, yet still is not as proficient as a classmate?

“Even though I felt I was fair,” Park explains, “some students felt that they were being misunderstood.” That was having a negative impact on grades as well as student engagement.

The heart of the issue, Park soon uncovered, was that students’ achievement was measured using only a few evaluations, which meant that they had less opportunity to boost their grade if needed. On top of that, Park recognized that she had not been providing clear and detailed explanations on the components of a performance that would be graded.

She noticed, too, that students in her Vocal Pedagogy course—a course in which music majors learn to become vocal instructors—felt similar concerns regarding how their teaching was graded. If being evaluated on a vocal performance can be subjective, so too can being judged on how well one performs in the role of instructor.

Fortunately, Park created a new methodology that enhanced her flexibility with grading and increased students’ success rates across the board.

Innovation: Offering clear expectations, flexible evaluations

During her 5 years as an educator at UT Tyler, Park has seen that students have different preferences for how they learn (lectures versus hands-on experience) and how they interact with her (face to face, by email, by phone). So, when questions arose about perceived subjectivity in grading, she had a good idea of how to shape the solution. She feels that her Vocal Pedagogy course is the best example of her new teaching approach.

Traditionally, the Vocal Pedagogy course focused on anatomy, physiology, and sound acoustics in performance. Studying in these areas is important, to understand how singers use different body parts to produce different sounds accordingly. However, students may not relate to these subjects when they learn how to be a good voice teacher. In order to offer a more empirical learning experience, Park has introduced new assessment tools in her vocal pedagogy course so that students learn beyond the traditional contents.

Park’s new approach has added more flexibility to how students are evaluated. Specifically, Park has created a variety of assessments to offer students a greater chance to succeed; these include videos, quizzes, written assignments, in-class demonstrations, and a multimedia presentation.

She has also created a detailed rubric for each assignment. At first, the rubric may seem to lend itself better to more concrete subjects (math, science, history) than to the performing arts. “Until recently, no rubric was given,” Park admits. Today, however, she distributes clear learning objectives for the course, as well as a detailed rubric for each individual assignment. “Now students know how items such as ‘organization of content’ or ‘the use of technology’ fit into the evaluation,” she says.

Context

“This approach has really opened a new door for me. Students really want to be involved. Now there is less confusion and challenge in the classroom. We’ve started building some rapport.”

— Sooah Park, DMA

Course: MUSI 3231 Vocal Pedagogy
Frequency: Two 1-hour sessions per week for 14 weeks
Class size: 10
Course description: Vocal Pedagogy covers the anatomical, physiological, and acoustic elements of singing as a means of providing students with a detailed working knowledge of the vocal mechanism. Emphasis is placed upon application of these principles to voice instruction, and providing students with tools and resources to aid them in their teaching and performing endeavors.
In her words: “This course teaches students how to teach voice lessons, so they need to learn how to use effective terminology and have knowledge of how the vocal mechanism works. It’s one of my favorites, because students now wear a different hat—they become the teacher and understand the teacher’s perspective on singing.”

MUSI 3231 Vocal Pedagogy

See materials

Lesson: Setting objective goals for a subjective course

In Vocal Pedagogy, each of Park’s students takes on the role of voice instructor, working with a student who is not a voice major. In this way, they learn to hone their critical listening skills, develop their vocabulary surrounding vocal instruction, detect and address vocal faults, and more. Here are some of the ways she ensures that she is grading her students fairly, whether they are singing or instructing others:

Offer a chance to look good on paper

Park supplies 4 quizzes that make up 20% of the grade. They cover terminology, anatomy, and other topics discussed class. As her students may be new to their role as vocal instructors, this is a good way to assess what they have learned in theory, even if they are not yet able to put it into practice.

Observe students “live” in action

When Park’s student-instructors work with their pupils, the bulk of their time is spent outside of class. However, Park also requires each student to teach a 20-minute lesson to their pupil during a Vocal Pedagogy class meeting—in front of Park and their own classmates.

“This makes [the student-instructors’] learning more public and gives a natural pressure to them to want to learn more and better,” Park says. “Doing well in front of their peers matters to them.” It also allows students to be graded on their success as an instructor, in case their paper-quiz grades do not reflect what they have absorbed.

Make the most of today’s technology

Park is pleased to introduce her students to the power of YouTube (she has her own channel). She knows that this platform may help them impress a prospective employer one day. To this end, she has students create a series of teaching demonstration videos (one per week). In these, the student-instructors must create vocal exercises, explain their purpose (using correct terminology), and demonstrate how they deliver instruction and feedback. They then upload the videos to YouTube to share them with Park and the class. Not only does this offer yet another grading option, it also allows students to replay the clip so they can see firsthand where they did well and what to work on next.

Mix it up with a multimedia exercise

For their final project, each of Park’s students creates a multimedia presentation on a topic of his or her choosing. (Before they begin, students are required to consult with Park and submit a written proposal to avoid duplication of topics.) The final mix of media used in their presentation is up to them, providing students a chance to highlight their individual talents.

Flexibility is also allowed in how some of the classwork is completed. “Some students are more comfortable with collaboration,” Park says, “so they might team up with two or three other students.” If they prefer to work solo, that is fine with her, too. Park says her goal is to make students the leaders of their own learning.

Remember that rubrics can work for the arts

Case in point: For the “Lesson Video” assignment, Park states 4 learning objectives:

  • To obtain empirical teaching experience of voice lessons
  • To learn how to explain the vocal mechanism by using universal vocal language
  • To apply vocal techniques and concepts in a real teaching setting
  • To experience the power of using proper vocal exercises to improve students’ singing

Then she details the 5 areas on which her students will be evaluated and each area’s percentage of the project grade. For instance, Park’s rubric asks, “Did [the pupil] make improvements in tone quality? Does your student feel more comfortable and [that it’s] easier to sing after working with you?” To quantify these questions further, she offers more examples that would indicate good teaching skills, such as the pupil demonstrating “less effort in singing,” “better breath management,” “visible improvement in posture,” “gaining confidence,” and the like.

While these expectations may still sound somewhat subjective, they help Park look at how far the pupil and their student-instructor have come. So, though grading in the arts may not ever be an “exact science,” Park has shown that creating helpful evaluations is doable—and it has helped her and her students breathe easier, too.

Complications and defense

Park readily admits that her flexible-evaluation solution requires more time (in both preparation and grading), more experience with technology, and more problem-solving than her former methods. However, she has seen it pay off in improvements in her students’ confidence and their ability to understand, accept, and grow from her feedback.

Before implementing any of these changes, Park first took student surveys and gathered lots of information, which she says was invaluable. In hindsight, however, she feels it might have been a good idea to implement her changes over the course of several semesters instead of all at once.

“The first semester I did this, there was a lot of confusion,” Park says. “It takes time for students to adjust to change.”

Implementing this approach also has required some creative problem-solving due to technology issues. For example, some of Park’s students live in rural communities where access can be limited, so she allows these students to submit videos in other ways (such as putting them up on Canvas or saving them onto a thumb drive). Also, she has found that sometimes technology does not function when it is supposed to (we’ve all been there), so she tries to have backup options prepared. “There shouldn’t be a penalty if technology isn’t working,” she says.

Last, Park points out that her specific innovations work well for this class because of its small size and because the students meet face-to-face twice a week. “This approach would be difficult to do with a big class, or with online-only learning,” she says.

Outcomes

Park points to these major outcomes that she says highlight the positive nature of her approach.

Better student success rates (grades)

For the first few years that Park taught this class, it was not unusual to have two or three students fail each semester. Since implementing these changes in spring 2017, however, she has started to see a shift. “Spring of 2018 is the first time that nobody failed the course,” she says.

Enhanced student engagement in class

“This approach has really opened a new door for me,” Park says. “Students really want to be involved.” She says that students now ask more relevant questions in class, they are more willing to come to her with concerns or questions, and they even share ideas for types of evaluations that could be beneficial. “The interactivity gives them some ownership in learning,” she says. “Now there is less confusion and challenge in the classroom. We’ve started building some rapport.”

Student feedback

Former students have written to Park to let her know how beneficial it was for them to have a portfolio of videos to show to a prospective employer. The various types of software that students utilize to create multimedia presentations have also served to make them more marketable, she adds. Here are a few of her recent student evaluations:

  • “Dr. Park is very diligent to try different methods to help a student understand in the best way possible. Performing for other students in studio class is also very helpful.”
  • “Dr. Park is very good at analyzing a singer’s issues and giving a student multiple pathways to fix that problem. She is very knowledgeable of the inner and outer workings of a singer, and explains them very well to young singers.”

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