Strategies for Connecting and Assessing the Multitudes in General Music

Assessing the Multitudes in General Music

Strategies for Connecting and Assessing the Multitudes in General Music

 By NAfME member Dr. Rebecca Birnie


Dr. Birnie will be presenting a session at NAfME National Conference titled, “Strategies for Connecting and Assessing the Multitudes in General Music” in Grapevine, Texas, on November 11, 2016.


How does a music teacher begin to assess the many students in general music? Why do we need to assess students?


music notes


First and most importantly, we do so to improve student learning. Assessment provides students with information to help them improve, and provides the music teacher with information that helps students achieve. It improves effectiveness as a teacher, improves school music programs and informs students, parents, community, and policy makers. It is vital that music educators assess their students for all these reasons, as it should never be assumed that people outside the discipline of music know what music educators do.


Assessment: So Many Terms

Measurement, evaluation, informal assessment, formal assessment, formative assessment, summative assessment . . . assessment terminology can be confusing!

  • Measurement is the process that assigns the numbers and/or attributes to learning according to specific formulations or rules, the process of collecting data about student performance.
  • Evaluation includes making a value judgment or decision about the data.
  • Informal assessment is gathered from day-to-day observations of students, often while students are creating, performing, or responding, including singing, playing, performing, moving, writing, composing, group projects, and presentations.
  • Formal assessment is a preplanned, systematic way to evaluate what students have learned, in a format such as a test, quiz, or performance assessment, and then is evaluated against other students. Formative assessment occurs frequently and helps students improve what they are doing, specific to the task being performed, where summative assessment is more formal and comprehensive, resulting in a grade or rating, often at a major point throughout the school year, such as the end of a unit or term and can include performances, concerts, papers, written exams, playing exams, performance ratings, portfolios, and festival ratings.


Making a Plan to Assess

  1. Determine what you will measure.
  2. Set and know your criteria in advance.
  3. Prepare rubrics/scoring techniques.
  4. Determine record keeping strategies.
  5. Determine materials for assessment.
  6. Inform your students.


music staff


Assessment in General Music . . . It’s Not That Difficult!

Written responses such as assignments, writing rhythms and melodies are an obvious choice, but performing formally for an audience, and informally for classmates is also an option. Choose one class to perform for another of the same grade level, or within the same class, allowing students to perform for an audience of peers, where they may have an increased level of comfort. The use of exit slips are a great way to have students reflect on learning, think about new information, or identify something that was unclear. Exit slips are used during the closure of the lesson and can include a quick question or a prompt such as:

  • “I would like to learn more about . . . ”
  • “I did not understand . . . ”
  • “Write one question you had about today’s lesson . . . ”
  • “Explain one thing you learned in today’s lesson.”

The use of post-it notes, pocket wall charts, and labeled baskets are other suggested options for collecting of exit slip information at the closure of a lesson.

Playback recordings including video and audio are excellent choices for assessment, allowing for both teacher and peer feedback. Listening journals allow for students to write responses to what they are hearing, related to tempo, dynamics, style, tone color, form, and how the music makes them feel. These responses can be easily prompted by questions or a listening journal form.




Nonverbal assessment strategies are a good strategy with younger students, through the use of thumbs up and down, arms moving to show direction, numbers to indicate sections, hands moving together or apart for dynamics, and standing or sitting to answer questions.

Rubrics are a popular choice in the classroom of the 21st century and help clarify for students the qualities their work should have, focus on what is to be assessed, and help them understand what the desired performance should look like, and what the next steps should be. Rubrics can be used for singing, playing, composing, and can be numbers, a set of points, or a checklist. As opportunity permits, technology is a highly motivating tool for assessment through interactive white boards, class websites, software, and recording technology.


music notes


Another great tool for assessment is the use of manipulatives, such as different colored cards or shapes with letters written on them for students to hold up in response to the changing sections of a piece of music, demonstrating their understanding of form. Similar cards with the terms “loud” and “soft” can be used, in addition to “fast” and “slow” cards. Concept pictures with music notes, rests, and pitches can be used for students to play instruments on cues, identify rhythm patterns or understand musical concepts such as high and low.


A B Form



Writing It Down

It is really not assessment until it is written down. Unless the information is recorded, much is lost when a class ends. Often, a simplified approach is best, such as a checklist, numerical scale, or rubric. It is possible to record information for every student, even in a large setting. Seating charts allow the music teacher to quickly take grades or make notes of students informally, while continuing to teach the lesson. The use of a class set of index cards, wi th one name written on each, allows the teacher to grade students quickly on each card as a task or answer is given.


Birnie ABA form poster copy 2


Using Assessment to Guide Instruction

Assessment serves as feedback for teachers in planning future lessons, as concepts and skills students struggle to learn can be focused further upon in future lessons. Music teachers should be using every opportunity for assessment through their lessons. Embedded assessment, which occurs during daily instruction and often when the student is unaware, is an effective way for teachers to observe during a structured task such as singing, playing, clapping, dancing, or improvising.

“If assessments are to be useful, they must comprise students’ actually doing with music the things that teachers believe are most important, whether singing, playing, composing, writing, or speaking about music. They must involve students in active tasks that are just like what we hope children will do with music beyond school” (Duke, 1999).


Duke, Robert (1999). “Intelligent Assessment in General Music,” General Music Today, Fall 1999.


About the author:

NAfME member Dr. Rebecca Birnie has been a music educator in Maryland for 24 years. She received her Doctor of Musical Arts degree in music education from Shenandoah University, a Master’s degree in music education with studies in Dalcroze, Orff and Kodaly from Towson University, and a Bachelors degree from Carson-Newman College. Dr. Birnie is an active clinician for state, regional, and national conferences. Dr. Birnie taught elementary general music in the public schools systems of Maryland for 20 years. Currently, Dr. Birnie teaches music education courses and supervises student teachers while on faculty at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Maryland.


Rebecca Birnie will be presenting on her topic “Strategies for Connecting and Assessing the Multitudes in General Music” at the 2016 NAfME National In-Service Conference this November in Grapevine, TX! Register today!

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Join us for more than 100 innovative professional development sessions, nightly entertainment, extraordinary performances from across the country, and tons of networking opportunities with over 3,000+ other music educators! Learn more and register today: And follow the hashtag #NAfME2016!

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