Gain Insight Through Feedback

Robert Taylor, Associate Professor in the School of Music

Dr. Robert Taylor, Associate Professor in School of Music, and other Music instructors have been using Collaborative Annotation Learning System (CLAS) in the Music Conducting (MUSC 311, 312, 313) and Symphony Orchestra (MUSC 150) courses for several terms. The School of Music was one of the early adopters of the CLAS system, as their conducting courses are very interactive in nature. Students are primarily learning the physical skills required to effectively communicate their thoughts to an ensemble. Every student makes regular appearances at the front of the class to work directly with the professor and practice their skills while the rest of the students sing or play instruments in response to the student-conductor’s gestures.

How did you use CLAS in your course and what made you decide to do this?

Before CLAS was first developed, the format of the class was such that students would conduct a music performance and receive feedback live from instructors and their peers. Afterwards, they would do individual reflective analyses on their techniques and what they need to improve for the next performance. These reflections were done by recording the students’ conducting techniques during class using VHS cameras and tapes. However, once the era of VCRs had passed, and technology shifted from tape to video, there was a brief period in which all sorts of file transfer methods were considered, ranging from USB drives to YouTube private channels or SD cards. It was then that I discovered CLAS while I was speaking with a colleague in Psychology, and I realized how valuable of a tool it could be if it’s used for our students’ self-evaluating activities. So instead of using CLAS for full lectures, as other departments had been doing, we wanted to use it on an individual basis – for each individual student in the class. What we implemented was a system in which each student conducts their peers, which is recorded onto any digital format, and then uploaded onto CLAS in a way in which only that student, the TA, and myself (the instructor) can view it. The student can then monitor their own conducting techniques and make annotations straight onto the video as their self-reflective exercise. Essentially, this removed the need for written paper reflections, and also allowed them to respond real-time to what they see in the videos rather than watching the whole thing at once and then writing up a reflective statement afterwards.

I would say that overall, the initial motivation to use CLAS was triggered by the changing video formats – we wanted as little hassle as possible in terms of sharing recorded video performances with each individual student instead of sharing the video with the entire class. We wanted a platform that allows us to easily share files with our students while retaining that confidentiality. The second motivation was for revamping the self-reflective portion of the activity – I wanted to ensure that the students are actually watching their videos, studying them and learning from them.

“Each student conducts their peers, which is recorded onto any digital format, and then uploaded onto CLAS in a way in which only that student, the TA, and the instructor can view it. The student can then monitor their own conducting techniques and make annotations straight onto the video as their self-reflective exercise. This removes the need for written paper reflections, and also allows them to respond real-time to what they see in the videos.”

What has been the result?

We’ve stopped having to use paper in class, since everything is online now. That’s been great because it’s much more time-efficient – the students get the information and the marks from me a lot faster because we’re not having to wait until we see them the next class to return these assignments to them. It saves paper obviously, and it’s been saving time in class because I’m no longer collecting or returning anything. And what that extra teaching time has allowed me to do is to focus on more group skill development in class. I can now spend ten minutes of class reviewing all of the necessary skills that the students need for their labs and provide more group instruction, instead of spending that time handing back assignments.

Also, now that the students write responses to their individually recorded videos on CLAS, I’ve seen a complete change in the level and quality of reflection that they produce. Before, when students simply submitted paper reflections to me, I was pretty convinced that they weren’t actually watching the videos, or at least, they weren’t watching it as carefully as they should. They would recall the live feedback they’d received in class that day and regurgitate those critiques on paper as their “self-reflection”. But they can’t do that anymore in CLAS, since all of their annotations have to be specific to a moment in their video. They pick a moment, they tag it, and they write a comment about what they’re seeing. If anything, it really gets them to watch the video with an active mind and forces them to look for specific things. It’s made the qualities of their reflections a lot better, and added more depth to them.

Were there any surprises in how your students responded to the use of CLAS once you introduced it?

I had some surprises in terms of how students interacted with the tool. With the self-reflective activities, I didn’t expect the students to be so critical in evaluating themselves when they were making annotations on their individual videos – they rarely tended to write about things that they were doing well. And that’s interesting, because you can learn just as much from recognizing what you’re doing well as opposed to simply picking out flaws. I was also surprised that they didn’t make much use of the option to address questions to me personally in their video annotations instead of simply writing comments or observations of what they see. It could partly be a time issue, but back when we used to have paper-based reflections about their techniques, there had been a lot more questions written down for me. Ideally with CLAS, I would like to be able to send information back to students after they’ve sent me theirs – their annotations – and have more of an exchange. As of now, the general pattern seems to be that after they submit their reflective assignments and get them graded by the TAs and myself, they don’t really go back to the video afterwards. But something I would like to emphasize is that they should carefully read the feedback we give them about their annotations and refer back to it when practicing their techniques from then on.

What are some challenges you’ve faced? Is there anything to your approach that you would improve or change?

Logistically, a challenge is getting the students accustomed to doing their work on CLAS and checking back for updates when we notify them. We have it set up so that we put prompts up on the CLAS page where the students can see all of their videos, and then we hand out assignment criteria in paper form during class. What this does sometimes is that two or three labs later, there’s a student who didn’t notice the prompt written on the CLAS video page, or didn’t make the connection between the assignment criteria handout and the task they have to do within CLAS, but this comes to our attention only when we start grading the assignments and notice the missing pieces. So I think it’s important to communicate clearly to the students how the tool is going to be used in the course. I could possibly take more time in the first few classes to talk about the tool and go over how to use it along with the assignment steps, but that’s a little hard to do because there isn’t a lot of class time.

In terms of what I would like to do differently in the future, I would like to spend more time using CLAS interactively – so giving more direct feedback to students using the tool. In particular, I would especially like to do more video demonstrations in response to students’ questions and comments in their self-reflective annotations.

Do you have any advice for instructors hoping to implement this in their course?

Jump right into it! It’s had an incredibly positive effect on my classes and it’s revolutionized the School of Music admission process. There isn’t a lot to worry about in terms of student reception, because they actually find it way more intuitive than we do thanks to all the different technologies they use on an everyday basis. So just go ahead and try it, and I think if you have a clear idea of what you want to achieve in your courses with it, the tool will definitely deliver. Even if you don’t have a lot of time to plan every step of the way and have every answer before you begin, it’s a fairly intuitive tool and system that you can pick up. And anyway, your usage of the tool will most likely change over time as you stumble upon new ways of thinking about it and using it in your courses. We’ve been using it for five years now and it’s evolved quite impressively – I think it’s a really powerful tool.