How do you evaluate student progress with 100+ singers in the room?

How do you effectively evaluate all students in your choral program?

What can be realistically taught and evaluated in the short amount of time we are given each day?

Now in my 4th year of teaching at Dassel-Cokato Middle and High School (6th year overall), I find myself facing a wonderful problem… I have too many students who want to sing. Concert Choir (10-12th grade) has maxed out the capacity of the choir room at 115 members. 9th grade choir is the largest it has ever been at 72 and continues to grow. On top of that I teach two sections of music theory opposite of band (we split the hour so students can do both band and choir. Theory is for the choir only students). I also teach all the 7th and 8th grade boys in the middle school.

I love having so many students wanting to sing and learn about music and I certainly love teaching them, but I begin to question my sanity when I find myself trying to effectively evaluate students in four different choirs (326 singers total) and two sections of music theory (one with 40 students and the other with 60). It takes days to grade any assessment and even longer to provide good feedback. On top of that, add the regular prep for all of these classes and getting ready for the performances at the end of each trimester.

We all wish there were more hours in a day, but instead of trying to bend the laws of time this school year has become my attempt to minimize the amount of assessment I do without compromising the quality and without cutting out too much of the good stuff. I am doing this with the hope that I keep my sanity intact and ensure that students are having a great experience while learning a little something along the way.

The following are solutions I have discovered thus far. These ideas are in no way my original inventions, but I do hope you find them helpful if you teach at a school where the choir teacher to student ratio is 1:too many.

Reduce the size of assessments: Have students demonstrate the basic, bare-bones concepts with fewer examples. I have found that if a student does not understand a concept it is very obvious whether you have 1 or 10 questions asking them to demonstrate that concept. This cuts down significantly on correcting time and allows you to give feedback in a timely manner.

Flexibility in the frequency of assessments: The frequency of assessments for me is relative to student understanding rather than a set timeline. Some skills are learned quickly while others are more complex and require more teaching time. My students seem to benefit from this flexibility knowing that their understanding of a concept is more important than getting a certain number of quizzes done by the end of the trimester. It also alleviates the pressure of having to cram a lot of information into a short amount of time.

Trust students to teach each other. It is difficult for me at times to trust that all my students stay on task when paired up or put in small groups to learn or review a concept (especially in a room of 60 music theory students). Over time I have seen that a majority of them are actually talking about music. They enjoy teaching and learning from one another, especially with complex concepts. It is easier for them to identify where the problem spots are if they have someone working through it with them.

Make a distinction between what is important and what is really important. We all agree that everything about choir is important, but I am talking about the bare-bones essentials that every student should know when they graduate from a choral program. I often ask myself when looking at curriculum; is this an essential skill? Is it practical and applicable to everyday music making? After teaching this will students have the ability to navigate and interpret a score without my help? Could they teach this skill to someone else? These questions are helpful in filtering out what is essential and what is extra.

In conclusion, I find it is important to step back and see a choral program from its beginning to its end. Remember that for most of us we see these students for many years in a row— In my case from 7th grade through graduation. That is a lot of time in which to teach those essential skills. I try my best to follow a mantra I heard in college: do less better. Find those important concepts that students can use for a lifetime of music making and take the time for those concepts to truly be learned.