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Building Foundation for Research-Based Evaluation of Learning in Higher Music Education

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NNMPF Conference in Helsinki, Finland, March 3-5, 2015
Presentation of PhD in progress
Tuula Jääskeläinen, Doctoral Student in Music Education
MuTri-Doctoral School/Sibelius Academy, University of the Arts Helsinki
Building foundation for research-based evaluation of learning in higher
music education
The aim of my doctoral study is to build a foundation for research-based evaluation of learning in
higher music education. This foundation will be later used in developing a learning questionnaire
which can be utilised for improving quality in the Sibelius Academy, University of the Arts Helsinki.
I have chosen the research-based LEARN-questionnaire to be a model in this study. The LEARN-
questionnaire has been developed and used since 2006 in the University of Helsinki and its
theoretical framework is based on the phenomenographic research approach. The primary aim has
been to develop knowledge of the ways which best support the whole study career students’ deep
approach to learning i.e. learning by seeking for understanding and meaning (Parpala, 2010). The
base of the questionnaire is in the large research project in the United Kingdom (Enhancing
teaching-learning environments in undergraduate courses) developed ETL-questionnaire (ETLQ)
which measures students’ approaches to learning and experiences of learning environments
(Entwistle, McCune & Hounsell, 2003). The two main parts of the LEARN-questionnaire are based
on the original parts of ETLQ. In addition, there are arguments and questions about the load of
studies, advancement and students’ generic skills in the LEARN-questionnaire. The third study
dimension in LEARN-questionnaire is planned studying which emphasises student’s skills in self
regulation and time management in studies (Entwistle & Peterson, 2005). According to previous
studies, indicators has been found to be reliable (alfa-values >.50) and in addition to measure
accuracy, the research validity has been valued to be high (e.g. Entwistle & Ramsden, 1983).
The doctoral study will be article based and its theoretical framework will be developed and
discussed in the first article. I will scrutinise the phenomenographic research based background of
the LEARN-questionnaire and examine critically the concept of approaches to learning to be able
to analyse LEARN-questionnaires applicability in higher music education. The phenomenographic
approach (Marton & Booth, 1997) has been used widely in educational psychology and research of
learning, for example in Sweden, Finland, the United Kingdom and Australia. The notion of deep
and surface approaches to learning has been a foundation for the research, theory and practice of
higher education for forty years. Usually the research findings refer to learning in general although
they are based on data collected in science university contexts. Studying in the music university
differs essentially from studying in science universities.
At this stage, I have posed the following research question for the doctoral study and sub-
questions a. and b. for the first article:
What kind of solid theoretical foundation can be relevant for research-based evaluation of
learning in higher music education for improving quality in the Sibelius Academy, University
of the Arts Helsinki?
a. How can the LEARN-questionnaire, which is developed within the context of the
science university in Finland, be adapted in the Sibelius Academy when examined
in light of research and literature of learning in higher music education?
b. What kind of classification of learning can be applied to research-based evaluation of
learning for improving quality in higher music education?
This paper scrutinises LEARN-questionnaire’s theoretical foundation by introducing concepts of
surface, deep (Marton & ljö, 1976a; 1976b) and strategic (Entwistle & Ramsden, 1983)
approaches to learning and discusses challenges and possibilities when adapting them in
researching learning for improving quality in higher music education.
2
Why to research learning for improving quality in higher music education?
Jørgensen (2009) highlights the need for utilising research in the quality improvement process in
higher education. At the same time he is amazed, that in the research of music education, still so
few researchers have raised questions related to their own higher education institutions. He
suggests that, for example, questions regarding curriculum organisation, related to the theoretical
and philosophical issues, have a potential to guide the effort to improve institutions for higher
music education. Johansen (2007) emphasises the significance of systematically conducted
research as a bottom-up activity, based on data collected from teachers’ and students’ experiences
of teaching and learning processes within their specific subjects, when establishing quality systems
in higher music education.
According to Reid (2001) there is a tendency to interpret successful performances as evidence of
the quality of the teaching and/or learning in higher music education. She suggests that directing
research to find out the range of ways students experience learning music, including the role of the
performance in learning, may help teachers to develop learning environments that better support
individual students. In developing the ways in which teachers approach their teaching and help
their students to learn, they need help to think how their teaching relates to and coheres with the
field as a whole (Prosser & al., 2005).
Gaunt (2010) shows in her research regarding one-to-one-tuition in a conservatoire, that in recent
years there has been significant growth in research relating to instrumental, vocal and composition
tuition in higher music education, but a larger study is needed to look systematically at ways in
which instrumental/vocal tuition is structured and the impact of this on, for example, the
development of instrumental/vocal skill, motivation and autonomy in learning. Students are active
agents in learning processes, in which teachers’ role is to engender education by constructing an
appropriate learning environment and emphasise also an unmotivated student’s will to learn
(Jorgensen, 1997).
Entwistle (2009) emphasises that it is not sufficient for a pedagogical theory simply to explain how
students learn; it also has to provide clear indications for improving the quality and efficiency of
learning. Good teaching should be evaluated in relation to high-quality learning of students, and
best practice is whatever helps students to engage more deeply with the subject and to become
more actively responsible for their own learning. Research findings by Mäkinen and Annala (2010)
indicate that by extending research-led teaching towards research-based, research-oriented and
research-tutored curriculum design and inquiry-based learning it is possible to enhance student’s
learning which involves intrinsic interest in knowledge and learning for its own sake, personal
growth and development in a given discipline, learning environment, working life, society and
changes in the world as an interactive process.
Student feedback systems have been used to obtain information on how well teaching supports
students’ learning. They can be divided into three groups on the basis of their focus: students’
evaluation of teaching, students’ satisfaction surveys and students’ perception of academic quality
(Richardson, 2005). Entwistle (2009) points out that questionnaire surveys have the advantage of
large samples although they tends to lead to relatively low response rates. The disadvantages are
that the less successful students are overrepresented in the non-response category and there are
also misleading findings coming from students wishing to present themselves in the best possible
light. Most of the evaluation forms used in universities are not research based, gathered data is not
analysed and there is no critical scientific evaluation ensuring its validity, which causes that these
evaluations cannot indicate how teaching, curriculum and learning environment might be improved.
One problem is that students may not know what is best for their own learning and their responses
provide evidence only of their satisfaction with the courses but generally no more than that. This
becomes apparent in student evaluations in which students are more positive about teachers who
give better marks regardless of what the students learn and are more negative about teachers who
make students work hard in order to learn (Poropat, 2014). The use of solely quantitative data
based questionnaires is problematic because they don’t allow students and teachers to explain
3
their responses. More effective way is to combine qualitative and quantitative data, for example by
including open-ended questions in feedback instruments. (Parpala, 2010.)
Entwistle (2009) has been developing, since the 1960’s, research-based learning inventories which
differ from standard evaluation questionnaires because they have been designed with
thoroughness and developed systematically and the wording of items is based on comments made
by students during interviews relating directly to their experiences. These inventories also contain
scales that have a strong conceptual and psychometric basis. Because ETL- and LEARN-
questionnaires’ foundation is based on the classification of deep, surface and strategic approaches
to learning, this classification needs to be examined when considering the applicability in higher
music education.
Deep, surface and strategic approaches to learning
Since the mid-1970s, there have been a large number of educational studies deriving from the
work of Marton and his colleagues in Gothenburg (1976a; 1976b; 1997). The key concept
emerging was the approach to learning with its categories of deep and surface. Their initial work
described the specific instance of reading an academic article. Subsequently Entwistle and
Ramsden (1983) added to these approaches to learning a strategic approach. Research has
shown that a deep, strategic approach to studying is related to high levels of attainment in higher
education (Entwistle, Tait & McCune, 2000).
According to Entwistle (2009) surface approaches, which are found in much the same form across
subject areas, involve an intention to reproduce the learning material with only limited engagement.
Deep approaches depend on the intention to understand for oneself, involving relating ideas and
using evidence, but the specific learning processes needed depend on the discipline. In rote
learning information is transferred in an unchanged form into long-term memory, whereas
meaningful learning creates connections with knowledge already held there. Even though
conceptual understanding is the main goal at university, memorising often plays a supportive role
in building up initial understanding, but also later on, ensuring that understanding is firmly lodged in
the memory.
Entwistle (2009) emphasises that approaches depend on how the student interprets a particular
task. Students cannot be characterised as ‘deep learners’ or ‘surface learners’ because
approaches change as students meet different types of learning environments. This context
sensitivity makes it possible to influence students’ approaches to learning more than relatively
stable traits in learning styles and strategies (Johansen, 2017). Entwistle (2009) shows that
research findings have indicated some consistency in the approach, which may reflect personality
differences or vocational aspirations. Teachers’ conceptions and modes of teaching and especially
assessment procedures have been shown to have an effect on students’ approaches to learning.
The information transmission conception and mode of teaching has been shown to lead to surface
approaches by the students, while the learning-centred conception encourages a deep approach.
Students already adopting deep approaches tend to give good feedback of teaching designed to
promote conceptual understanding, while those having surface approaches react negatively to the
same environments (Entwistle & Tait, 1990).
Because these research findings are based on data collected in science university contexts,
challenges and possibilities in adapting deep, surface and strategic approaches to learning in the
music university needs to be elaborated thoroughly.
Challenges and possibilities in adapting approaches to learning in higher music education
Subsequent research in science university context has shown that surface and deep approaches
to learning can be applied equally well to whatever task the students meet, for example the way
students take notes in lectures, write essays and prepare for examinations (Entwistle, 2009).
4
Although, these kinds of tasks are marginal in studying in the music university where one-to-one-
tuition and practicing formulate the main part of studying.
Entwistle (2009) emphasises that it is important to clarify for each subject area and each topic the
processes of learning that are necessary to develop deep conceptual understanding. This stance is
crucial in higher music education and also Johansen (2007) highlights the need, for example in
music teacher education, for subject specific research into the quality of teaching and learning. The
challenge is, that in higher music education learning art differs from learning science university
based knowledge and thus conceptual understanding is only a minor part of studies. Unlike the
strongly structured knowledge, the flexibly constructed knowledge in learning art is not clearly
cumulative and it is not easy to be structured to unambiguous objects (Spiro & al., 1988). Thus, it
would be essential to find out what is the meaning of deep, surface and strategic approaches in
learning music, in which sensitiveness of senses and embodied experiencing diversify
understanding. Rote learning has an important role in practicing music and it cannot be obviously
categorised to surface approach in higher music education. In addition, learning music includes
skills, creativity, reflective thinking and art expression. In embodied artistic action a person does
not only understand him/herself but he/she also understands and tells him/herself and other
persons in new ways. These aspects and dimensions of learning music differs essentially from
science university based conceptual understanding.
According to Entwistle (2009) there appears to be an inner logic of the subject and its pedagogy
linking the nature of knowledge in the discipline to the specific set of methods which help students
to learn. But there is also a way of thinking about the pedagogy that can be generalised, and there
are actions that can be taken to embody that approach within the teaching-learning environments
provided for students. This may be easier to apply in science university contexts than in higher
music education. Studying in the music university includes many kind of learning and students face
variety of teaching methods and learning environments during their studies due to the diversity of
knowledge and skills deriving from learning outcomes of the curriculum in higher music education.
The differences in the contents and teaching methods of subjects and study programmes can be
enormous, for example when comparing Arts Management study programme to instrumental
subjects or Church Music to Music Technology.
In higher music education there can be found studies relating to approaches to learning in the
music university. Sullivan and Cantwell (1999) investigated the planning strategies of university
music students’ learning of a traditional and non-traditional notated score by using a modified and
shortened version of Biggs’ (1987) Study Process Questionnaire. The findings indicated that, even
among the more expert musicians, deep learners are more likely to address a musical score at
a higher level of meaning through the use of a deeper and wider array of processing strategies
than surface learners.
Reid (2001) describes in her study the different ways that instrumental and vocal students
experience, or understand, learning in higher music education. The research findings constituted
five categories of description of learning instrumental music:
Instrument (voice) (level 1): learning an instrument (voice)
Elements (level 2): learning an instrument and some musical elements
Musical meaning (level 3): learning musical meaning
Communicating (level 4): learning to communicate musical meaning
Expressing meaning (level 5): learning to express personal meaning
Reid (2001) argues that students who only understand learning from the perspective of the least
inclusive category do not understand aspects of the more sophisticated categories. Students who
describe their learning from the more inclusive categories are also able to use attributes of the less
inclusive if their learning situation demands it. These findings imply that teaching strategies and
techniques may well need to be adapted and changed for different students and that learning
activities supporting the development of personal meanings, understandings and communication
are of most benefit.
5
Johansen (2007) indicates in his study regarding educational quality in music teacher education
that there seems to be significant connections between deep learning approaches, inner motivation
and with the craft skills and apprenticeship knowledge cultures advocated by teachers of musical
performance. This results in an over-representation of respect to students’ learning of a main
instrument and consequently impacts on their approaches to other subjects. Ferm and Johansen
(2008) investigated internal evaluation quality issues from the standpoint of professors and
trainees teaching and learning within higher music education and in relation to music didactics. The
study was founded on the research and literature of educational quality in higher education and
research results indicated that deep learning in music didactics was regulated by how the teaching
forms and the selected educational content gave space for trainees’ learning styles, strategies and
approaches. Ferm Thorgersen (2010) researched holistic quality learning from the students’
perspective by using the phenomenological approach and arguing that knowledge of such learning
should constitute a basis for developing theories and action plans for quality work in music teacher
education.
Discussion and implications
The previous studies relating to approaches to learning in higher music education show that the
concept of approaches to learning has been applied by using both phenomenological (e.g. Ferm
Thorgersen, 2010) and phenomenographical (e.g. Sullivan and Cantwell, 1999) approach. Reid’s
(2001) study includes elements from both of them and may indicate uncertainty and incoherence
with the epistemological background. According to Giorgi (1999, p. 68) “Phenomenography
becomes the act of representing an object of study as a qualitatively distinct phenomenon whereas
phenomenology is the process whereby whatever is given or appears is investigated in order to
reveal its structure or principle of organisation”. Phenomenography differs from phenomenology in
considering only second order or conceptual thoughts of people and in practice phenomenographic
studies usually concern students being asked to describe their understanding of a concept, a text
or a situation, with the researcher then sorting the descriptions into categories based upon the
most distinctive characteristics and structurally significant differences (Webb, 1999).
Phenomenography and phenomenology have only a distant relationship and Giorgi (1999) argues
that to the extent that phenomenography has departed from phenomenology, to that extent it has
weakened itself.
Phenomenography is a research approach which is particularly aimed at questions of relevance to
learning and understanding in an educational setting (Marton & Booth, 1997). That may be the
reason why it has been used widely as a foundation for researching learning in higher education.
Webb (1997, pp. 195, 197) argues that the notion of deep and surface approaches to learning has
become a canon for educational development and Deep/surface experiments moved away from
the view that individuals brought specific competencies to learning tasks and towards the idea that
the learning environment, curriculum and in particular the assessment régime, informed the
approach to learning which individuals would adopt”. Webb (1997) also criticises the simplicity of
the dichotomy between the deep and surface approaches, where deep approach seems to be
more desirable. Parpala (2010) argues that Webb’s suggestion can be misleading because an
individual student or groups of students may adopt different combinations of approaches to
learning according to context and students’ conceptions of learning and hence approach to
learning may be unclear.
As I have discussed in this paper, there are challenges in adapting phenomenographic based
concept of approaches to learning in higher music education, where the phenomenological
approach might offer more appropriate foundation for researching learning. This problem needs to
be examined further in my first article with the second sub-question: What kind of classification of
learning can be applied to research-based evaluation of learning for improving quality in higher
music education?
6
I will expand my doctoral study for empirical research by interviewing students in the Sibelius
Academy to complement the information deriving from previous research and literature of learning
in higher music education. This study for my subsequent article will be planned more precisely
according to findings in the first article.
I believe that my doctoral study can enhance knowledge of learning in higher music education. The
research results can be utilised in the teaching and learning development and quality improvement
in the Sibelius Academy and in other institutions in higher music education. This study may also
give a base for researching university learning in other artistic fields and thereby strengthening
university pedagogy research in the arts in Finland and internationally.
7
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