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To Include is To Excel: Inclusive learning in music

Assistant Professor of Music Louis Epstein developed a To Include is To Excel project focused on ensuring that students with a variety of musical backgrounds experience an introductory level music course equitably, with every opportunity for success.

In the first two years of the  To Include is To Excel initiative, St. Olaf College faculty and staff members have developed nearly 50 grant-funded projects to support inclusive teaching and learning. We’re  highlighting these projects in a new series — and we hope that hearing about this work in the words of fellow faculty and staff members will inspire you to think about how you can be part of creating a more inclusive and equitable campus community.

 Students enter music history courses with diverse backgrounds and disparate levels of musical experience — yet little research exists to support faculty in their efforts to accommodate such diversity through course design.

So Assistant Professor of Music Louis Epstein has developed a To Include is To Excel project to study the relationship between students’ prior musical experience and their performance in an introductory level music course. The results of the study — now in its second phase — could help faculty rethink how the exclusive recruitment of “traditional” musicians into music departments might be amended to improve the diversity of the students taking music classes, and to make teaching and learning in those classes more inclusive.

The results of the first phase of the study were published in the Journal of Music History Pedagogy, and Epstein and a student researcher recently presented their work at the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society.

Epstein shares what he learned in developing this To Include is To Excel project and what he hopes the community takes away from it:

What led you to develop this project?
When I was developing Music 141 as a new course in 2018, I was both excited and slightly daunted by the fact that it would be required for music majors but open to non-majors. I was excited because we have so many musically talented and musically curious students at St. Olaf who never get to take a course in the Music Department, and here was an opportunity to give them a chance to think critically and historically about music, just as we ask music majors to do. But I also felt daunted because I could imagine non-majors or students with little music experience feeling overwhelmed by the specialized terminology and habits of mind that go along with studying music. So from the course’s inception, I wanted to ensure that students with a variety of musical backgrounds experienced the course equitably, with every opportunity for success. That meant collecting and analyzing data, and since I have no training in social science research or data analysis, I sought the help of some talented students — Anna Perkins ’18, Taylor Okonek ’18, Siriana Lundgren ’19, and Jack Wolf ’20 — and Kelsey Thompson in the Office for Institutional Effectiveness and Assessment.

After collaborating with student researchers Anna Perkins ’18 and Taylor Okonek ’18, Assistant Professor of Music Louis Epstein presented their work at the 2018 Teaching Music History Conference in Terre Haute, Indiana.

What did you learn — about yourself, your students, your colleagues, the St. Olaf community — as you began working on this project?
I’ve learned so much from this project. I learned about experimental design, read some great scholarship of teaching and learning by scientists who have implemented and assessed inclusive pedagogies in their classrooms, and I learned about things that are going well and things that could go better in my classroom. For instance, our data showed that major status (whether you’re a music major or not) wasn’t predictive of success in Music 141 — an encouraging sign — but interviews that Anna and Siriana conducted showed that students perceived that music majors and students with significant musical experience had an advantage in the course. Another good sign is that underrepresented status — being a first-generation, low-income, and/or domestic student of color — does not appear to be a strong predictor of student success, either. Similarly, while musical experience was a better predictor of student success than major status or underrepresented status, GPA was a much stronger predictor than all the rest combined, accounting for 55 percent of the course grade in the spring of 2018 and 78 percent in the spring of 2019.

I see this as a mixed result. It suggests that Music 141 is as accessible and inclusive as any at St. Olaf — it’s not inaccessible to students just because it’s about music — but at the same time, it reinforces existing inequities through which some students are good at college and therefore do well in their classes, while other students struggle despite being conscientious, hard-working students. We still don’t know what, exactly, accounts for differences in GPA among students, which makes it difficult to ensure that all students have equitable opportunities to succeed in any given class regardless of their GPA.

What do you hope students and other members of the St. Olaf community take away from this work?The research we’ve done in Music 141 offers several lessons, not only for students and teachers at St. Olaf but also for students and faculty at other institutions. Perception matters: students who believe they’re less prepared for a class, or that they’re destined to struggle and maybe even fail, are more likely to fulfill that expectation (a phenomenon related to what Claude Steele has called “stereotype threat”). Teachers need to convince students that they’re able to succeed in any given class, and having data that shows that major status, underrepresented status, and musical experience level aren’t significant predictors of success can help us do just that. At the same time, if we found that one of those identity markers was a significant predictor of student success, it would tell us a great deal about the kinds of changes we would need to make to our class to make it more equitable — or it would tell us that the class should be an upper-level course reserved for majors or students who have completed a particular prerequisite that prepares them to succeed in that upper-level course. Either way, doing the research is a first step towards addressing challenges that many of us face in our classes, no matter the level or the particular blend of students.

Teachers need to convince students that they’re able to succeed in any given class, and having data that shows that major status, underrepresented status, and musical experience level aren’t significant predictors of success can help us do just that.

On that note, I’ve presented this research a few times to other musicologists, and to that audience I make the argument that we don’t necessarily need to teach classes that are exclusively reserved for music majors, especially in departments looking to increase enrollment. I also point out that even when we do teach majors exclusively, or non-majors exclusively, we’re always working with diverse classrooms full of students with widely varying levels of musical experience and — more importantly — different GPAs. We always need to apply what the science of teaching and learning tell us constitutes effective, student-centered teaching:  differentiating instruction, providing plenty of structure to overcome differences in “college knowledge” among students, using active learning techniques, and creating a syllabus and classroom environment that is inclusive to various identities and learning histories.

How can the St. Olaf community support your project?
The St. Olaf community has already supported this project so profoundly, from the To Include is to Excel grant that made it possible for me to hire fabulous student research associates, to the colleagues who listened to my practice talks on the study before conferences, to the Dean’s Office whose IPAT supported my travel to present our work at conferences, to Kelsey Thompson (whom I can’t thank enough) for her willingness to provide data analysis related to student data that, due to FERPA, my students and I could not access. I would be interested to see some of our methodology applied more broadly across courses at St. Olaf, perhaps as part of the new assessment strategies being devised to accompany the new OLE Core general education curriculum. And I’d be thrilled if colleagues and students alike sent their advisees and friends to take Music 141, because I know that having a more diverse classroom leads to better learning for all students — and for their professors, too!

Where does your work go from here?
Music 141 continues to change as Assistant Professor of Music Rehanna Kheshgi (who teaches it every fall) and I continue to adjust course content and policies to improve its accessibility to a variety of students and to work against the power of GPA as a predictor of student success. As the course changes, we’ll need to revise our assessment methods and routinely compare the experiences of the most recent cohort against the cohorts of the past. I’d also like to apply more of our research methodology in other courses I teach, although I’ll admit that Music 141 is an ideal laboratory for research into teaching and learning because the large-ish course size (two sections of 60+ students each per year) means that our results are likely to be more statistically significant. While small class sizes are ideal for getting to know students and individualizing student learning, the research methodologies we’ve developed aren’t as effective in those contexts.

Anna, Taylor, and I just published the results from the first iteration of our study in 2018 in the summer issue of the Journal of Music History Pedagogy. And in early November, Siriana and I presented results comparing the first and second iterations of the study at the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society. Siriana, Jack, and I will likely publish our comparison of the first two iterations of the study in the next year or two in the hope that others can replicate and complicate our findings.