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    Incoming freshmen who need more help...

    Collective Wisdom,

    I’m writing to solicit some recommendations for helping my university’s incoming freshmen without much (or any) theory experience.

    Here’s our current set-up:

    1. We administer a diagnostic exam prior to the beginning of the first semester.  It’s very “nuts and bolts” – treble/bass clef note ID, key signatures, major/minor scales, intervals, triads, and a couple of 7th chords.

    2. All students register for Theory 1 and Aural 1, but the students who don’t perform well on the diagnostic exam also register for a class called “Introduction to Music Theory.”

    3. This “Introduction” class runs alongside the Theory class.  Theory meets MW (75 min/day), Aural meets TR (50 min/day), and the “Intro” class meets on Fridays (50 min).  Typically, we use this class as a sort of group tutoring setting – “Here’s what we worked on this week.  What challenges are you having with this material?” And, if time allows, “Here’s what we’re working on next week – let’s get a jump start.”


    The success of the Intro class has been very hit-or-miss.  The fundamental problem is that the students who “test into” the class are required to take it because of a lack of experience – but that lack of experience doesn’t always translate to “needs extra help every week.”  Many of the students do just fine with the material on MW in written theory, and don’t really need the group tutoring on Fridays.  But some really do need it.  And furthermore, there are always a number of students who *don’t* test into the class who turn out to really need that kind of extra help.

    I’d like to be able to allow students to drop the Intro class after a few weeks if it becomes apparent that they don’t need it…and to allow students to add the Intro class later in the semester if they do need it.  But our registration is a bit restrictive – late drop/add fees kick in after the first week of classes…

    I feel fortunate that we have this “Intro” class already on the books – it gives us some structure in which to work.  But we haven’t yet come up with a truly effective way to manage it. 

    Does anyone have any suggestions for a way that we could improve this situation to help our students be more successful?  How do you deal with these kinds of issues at your school?

    [Logistical details:  We typically have between 30-35 students in Theory 1 (one section only), and usually about 10-12 of them are in the Intro class.  We don’t have a grad program, so there are no TA’s to help out, though we do have a small number of upper-class theory/comp majors.]

    Thank you for your thoughts!


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    • 6 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • Hi Zac,

      We’ve had the same problem. I don’t know how helpful this reply will be, since we’re implementing this method in the Fall 2018 semester for the first time, but I think it’s promising and may give you another option to consider.

      After completing a diagnostic test similar to the one you described, our incoming students will now be placed in Foundations of Music Theory if they are underprepared for Theory I and/or Aural Training I. This course takes place in the fall semester, and Theory I begins in the spring, so we have elected to shift the rotation of the typical four-semester sequence back by one semester. Obviously there are some logistical complications that had to be worked out, especially as this shift affects the completion schedule for the music ed degree, as well as coordination with the music history sequence. But our department all agreed it was a change worth making if it meant students were better prepared.

      We’ve designed the fall Foundations course to introduce all the fundamentals that would have been included in Theory I, but at a slower pace, with 1–2 written theory topics and a complementary aural-skills/sight-singing topic each week. We’ve found that many of our students who do come in with some theory background frequently lack matching listening skills (especially among instrumentalists who may have never been expected to sing before).

      Our expectation is that every student who places into Foundations, no matter which holes need filling, will find plenty they can gain, whether that’s improving on existing knowledge, or being introduced to everything for the first time. For the things they may already know, we work on speed, facility, and mastery within those areas, so that no one is bored all the time.

      Still, I’ll have a more informed perspective after we’ve beta-tested this approach in the fall.

    • If you're only interested in discussing the classes in question and how they serve your students, then please ignore this.  Rather than focusing solely on the first-year classes, my suggestion is to consider a placement test that is able to evaluate ability and not just achievement.  This is what we're doing at FSU, and we find that it works quite well.  (Appalachian State University adopted our placement test last fall, and others plan to adopt it this coming fall.)  I discussed the new placement test as part of my SMT paper last fall.

      Best wishes,



    • Enoch -- That's a very interesting idea!  I think that our music ed faculty might explode at that prospect...in fact, the thought of adjusting prerequisites or much of our upper-level scheduling kind of makes my head spin, too!  But, I will keep that idea in mind, because it does have potential.  And I think a big side-benefit might be that your Theory I students won't *also* be struggling with adjusting to their first semester on a college campus...

      Nancy -- I like that idea a whole lot -- ability vs achievement really is the crux of the issue, and I haven't come up with a realistic way to measure the former.  I wasn't at SMT in the fall, so I missed your presentation...would you mind sharing a copy of your paper (and/or the test itself) privately?  

      Thank you both for your feedback!


    • Dear Zac,

      For what it's worth, we had a very similar setup here at KU. Year after year, more of our incoming freshmen did not pass the entrace exam. When this number hit 50% (i.e., more than half of them having to take a remedial class in semester one), we finally decided to change the system.  

      Now, we start everybody at Theory 1, and begin Theory 1 with a 6-week fundamentals unit. It means we have less time for some more sophisticated stuff later in first year (voice-leading in sequences, schemata, etc.), but they seem to launch into sophomore theory okay with the same basic toolkit as before. 

      An added bonus of this change is that our freshman retention rate has gone up. We were losing several students who, disheartened by the double-whammy of having to take a night class and the sense that they weren't good enough for their major, dropped. We're now above 93%, well above the average freshman retention rate for the university as a whole. 


    • For our incoming students, I created a fundamentals text inside our online course management program. Students prepare for the placement test, administered on the first day of classes, prior to arriving on campus.  Results have been great!  For more than a decade, the placement rate into Theory & Aural 1 was about 25%.  When fully implemented (complete with two practice tests and answer keys to download), the placement rate rocketed up to 82%. 

    • Hi,

      Have you thought about asking students to use social media resources to prep themselves at home, rather than sitting through a partial course?

      For example, if the students just need to catch up on the basics, they could check out the podcast Music Student 101, or YouTube channels by Nour Sharif, Rick Beato, Seth Monahan... This would be so much easier / efficient for both the students and the teachers than having to teach them in a physical classroom, because these resources already exist, are very engaging, and can be watched/heard as many times as the students need.

      If you're interested, I've put together a free guidebook to nearly 100 music theory podcasts, blogs, YouTube channels, Facebook groups, Twitter feeds, Instagram pages, and Pinterest boards. It's on my website, SocialMediaMusicTheory.com

      If there are particular topics that you'd like your students to work on outside of the classroom, I'd be happy to chat. Just let me know. Music theory on social media is one of my passions, and there's SO much out there, so I'd be delighted to help you find ways of incorporating it into your students' education.