Back in 1996, just before joining the faculty at Ohio’s Oberlin Conservatory, music theory professor Brian Alegant took a workshop for university and college professors on student-centered teaching. He had been teaching for a number of years already, at McGill University in Montreal, and was beset by the nagging sense that his teaching—and that teaching writ large—was not as effective as it could be.

“The way music theory is traditionally taught is hopelessly dry,” says Alegant. “It’s a lot of ‘name this chord.’ You teach the tonal vocabulary, then syntax, then grammar. I’d go through the same material over and over but somehow it would never stick. It just didn’t engage students.”

That teaching workshop, however, led him to overhaul everything about his approach. “I came away with a clear sense of the separation between teaching and learning,” he says. “If I have to boil it down, my job is to get students to engage with the material as deeply as they can.” By that standard, there was no point continuing teaching as he had before. “I was no longer going to be the expert. I was going to be a facilitator.”

Alegant began pushing the envelope by embracing the flipped classroom concept: keep lectures to a minimum, and spend class time in group discussion and discovery-based inquiry. He began emphasizing skills over content, then let students choose their own assignments. But the greatest leap Alegant made, which he says had the most positive impact—yet which most professors still demur from—was allowing students to grade their own work.

“I never truly understood the difference between a B+ and an A- paper,” Alegant says. Given the subject matter he teaches, namely theory in the performing arts, Alegant says “there is no objective way to grade.” Even so, it took him some time to get comfortable with student self-assessment. He initially tried other strategies such as contract grading, which stipulated in detail the work students would have to do to achieve a specific grade, but that proved short-lived. The process was cumbersome, and students would still seek to renegotiate their signed contracts individually as semester’s end approached. “If I was going to be a facilitator, I couldn’t play this kind of enforcement role.”

Why self-assessment works

When he finally made the leap to self-assessment, even for assignments students chose themselves, Alegant discovered that the vast majority of students actually gave themselves appropriate grades. His observation fits some of the academic research on the subject, which has found that students self-assess realistically when explained the criteria. Alegant makes his expectations clear to his students, outlining the skills students will learn and providing examples of effective and ineffective self-assessment portfolios. He reserves the right to lower a student’s self-assessed grade. He also asks students to articulate their own learning objectives, and what excellence might look like to them.

Brian Alegant

The depth of their learning and engagement speaks for itself.

— Brian Alegant

Even so, says Alegant, “there’s always one outlier, one student who will have a much higher opinion of his work than I do.” He has learned to address that problem during midterms: students must complete a midterm project of their choosing, then write a two-page essay explaining what they have learned and what grade they’d assign themselves. Then he meets with each student individually to discuss it, which gives him the opportunity to identify any outliers and correct their course.

The result, he says, is highly engaged classrooms of self-motivated students. Alegant, who has been letting students self-assess for a decade now, says the change hasn’t resulted in higher grades, but it has resulted in deeper learning, according to his own assessment and his student evaluations. Alegant’s innovative approach also yielded a 2015 Professor of the Year Award from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, making him the first music professor to win the award in its 36-year history.

“Instead of teaching music vocabulary we end up discussing character, form, performance, hermeneutics and phenomenology,” he says. The learning process is a humbling one in many ways, as it puts students in touch with what they don’t know—which helps explain why students tend to grade themselves appropriately. “The requirement that they think about and write persuasively about their own learning is invaluable. The depth of their learning and engagement speaks for itself.”

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