Music teachers in Singapore have the autonomy to design assessment tasks and activities for their students within the context of the General Music Programme. What makes a music assessment task really “fit-for-purpose”, particularly in supporting student’s holistic learning? Principal Investigator Dr Leong Wei Shin spearheads a research project to explore existing classroom assessment tasks to better understand and improve music teachers’ assessment strategies.
Assessment in the Music Classroom
“Assessment is central to the teaching and learning of music,” says Wei Shin, who is also an Assistant Professor with the Curriculum, Teaching and Learning Academic Group at NIE. “It can determine what students remember about music and their attitudes towards it for the rest of their lives.”
The General Music Programme (GMP) is a key arts programme that provides basic music education to all students from Primary 1 to Secondary 2. Although the GMP is non-examinable, teachers are encouraged to conduct assessment regularly to facilitate students’ learning of music (MOE, 2016).
As a former music teacher, Wei Shin is keen to help teachers improve their assessment strategies to enrich their students’ learning of music.
Working closely with a team of researchers (Dr Pamela Onishi and Dr Imelda Caleon), research assistants (Mr Theodore Low and Ms Clarice Wong) and MOE collaborators (Ms Suriati Suradi and Mrs Li Yen See), the team collected and analysed 47 assessment tasks from 24 primary and secondary school music teachers over 2 years to understand the kinds of assessments that exist in classrooms today.
Appraising Assessment Tasks
A big part of the research project is the panel of expert evaluators that Wei Shin engaged to assist with appraising the assessment tasks they collected.
“Among the teachers who had submitted the tasks, we invited some to be expert evaluators as they have many years of experience teaching music,” Wei Shin adds. Besides teachers, his team also invited officers from the Singapore Teachers Academy for the aRts (STAR) to be on this panel.
“Expert evaluators help us to rate assessment tasks according to whether they are age-appropriate to a particular level and if they meet the requirements of the GMP syllabus,” says Wei Shin. The evaluators were not told about the specific school level (e.g., Primary 4, Secondary 2) of the tasks and works. Rather they had to guess which level the assessment would be most appropriate for, and proceed to evaluate the students works according to that “best guess”.
“Within the context of GMP, we have consensus that a good assessment task is one that is developmentally appropriate, embraces the holistic sense of music learning and also helps students connect what they have heard with what they are performing and what they could possibly create,” Wei Shin shares.
In the GMP syllabus, the five stipulated learning outcomes pertain to the performance, composition, listening, appreciation and theory of music. “Assessment tasks that address these outcomes are considered holistic because music has to be regarded in its entirety,” Theodore explains. “Expert evaluators also award better ratings to such tasks and this itself is an important finding that we can have such consensus.”
“A good assessment task is one that is developmentally appropriate, embraces the holistic sense of music learning and also helps students connect what they have heard with what they are performing and what they could possibly create.”
– Leong Wei Shin, Curriculum, Teaching and Learning Academic Group
Mismatch between Task and Student Level
If music teachers could have a fuller view of the learning progressions of students across the levels, the assessment tasks that they set could have a higher chance of being developmentally appropriate and address the stipulated learning outcomes. Students would also receive more age-appropriate tasks as they progress to higher school levels to maximize their learning of music.
Upon reviewing expert evaluators’ ratings and feedback on the tasks that teachers submitted, the team discovered that there is sometimes a mismatch between the developmental level associated with a task and school level of students who receive the task. This could mean that a secondary school task is easily achieved by primary school students and vice versa.
“For example, one secondary school task that we collected required students to select the correct rhythm after listening to a recording. Expert evaluators and our team hold the view that this task can easily be accomplished at the primary school level,” Theodore explains.
“Such a finding suggests that even with a common syllabus to refer to in designing assessment tasks, music teachers can have very different interpretations on what is an appropriate task,” Clarice adds.
Wei Shin’s team hypothesized that levels of proficiency in music can vary significantly among students at the secondary school level. Consequently, some music teachers may feel compelled to design assessment tasks that do not disadvantage less adept students.
Nevertheless, the team did receive other secondary school tasks that both they and expert evaluators considered to be developmentally appropriate. They include one that required students to play a piece of music on the guitar as a band and another that gave students the opportunity to lend their creative input into a song.
More Communication and Guidance
“Many music teachers typically interact only with fellow primary or secondary school teachers. There are also primary school teachers who have never seen a secondary school task and vice versa,” Wei Shin shares. “Some were thus surprised at either the simplicity or complexity of a task designed by another teacher.”
These findings led Wei Shin’s team to conclude that primary and secondary school music teachers should have more opportunities to exchange ideas and learn from one another to promote conversations and sharing of expectations tacitly embedded their teaching, learning and assessment strategies.
“In doing so, good quality music teaching, learning and assessment can be better understood and democratized across schools in Singapore,” says Clarice.
“Teachers who participated in this project also expressed that they liked the idea of sharing assessment tasks with one another and learning the practices of fellow colleagues,” Wei Shin adds.
Besides opportunities for interaction, Wei Shin believes that teachers should be given more guidance on principles of assessment in music to ensure that they design assessment tasks that are appropriately tailored to students’ levels.
Wei Shin has shared part of his research findings with colleagues at the Arts Education Branch (AEB) at MOE and the 2016 International Society for Music Education conference. He intends to present the final findings on various local and international platforms when they are ready.
Ultimately, Wei Shin hopes that his research into GMP assessment will help, together with many other important initiatives within and outside MOE, to raise the quality of music education in Singapore.
Ministry of Education, Student Development Curriculum Division (2016). Music Teaching and Learning Syllabus: Primary and Lower Secondary. Retrieved from: https://www.moe.gov.sg/docs/default-source/document/education/syllabuses/arts-education/files/2015_Music_Teaching_and_Learning_Syllabus_(Primary_and_Lower_Secondary).pdf