“Speed Dating” Through Music History

by Dr. Karen M. Cook

Regardless of how a school or instructor structures their music history curriculum, there comes a point in the semester in which students must master a large amount of new vocabulary. Students are often confronted with lists of new musical terms, as well as names of people, places, establishments, genres, works, and so forth, that they must internalize. Especially in busy parts of the semester, or toward the end of term when mental resources are flagging, it might well serve both professors and students to come up with pedagogical techniques that help the students not only to learn the definitions of new terms but to also draw meaningful connections between these words, people, works, and relevant world events. To that end, I have designed a lesson plan that draws students creatively, and often humorously, into this process: “speed dating.”

In a real-world speed dating event, one group of interested parties is seated around a room, while the other group rotates at set intervals of a few minutes in length. During the time each pair meets, they have a conversation to get to know one another and each then marks down whether they might like to pursue further contact. At the end of the event, all parties submit their comments to the event host, who then notifies each person if they have successfully matched with someone who shares an interest.

Modifying this arrangement to meet pedagogical objectives is fairly easy, and the lesson plan can be further adjusted as the professor desires, as I explain below. For my own purposes, I have typically structured this lesson plan as a review, to be used after students have read particular chapters of their textbook and have discussed them in class, but before any kind of exam or other application of the material has taken place.

For the activity, I first determine the vocabulary (people, places, events, genres, terms, works, etc.) that the class most needs to review. I then select a number of terms sufficient for each member of the class, making sure that the students’ current level of experience with the material will allow them to make some connections between most pairs of terms or—when relevant—to recognize that the terms are not closely related at all. Each term gets printed out on a small piece of paper or index card, big enough that a definition or summary can be written on it. I also create a handout for each student on which they can document their notes about their “dating” interactions; depending on the class, I might also provide some sample questions that they might ask during their matchmaking sessions.

At the start of class, I distribute the handouts and have each student select a card at random. I ask them to note their term at the top of their handout and then give them five minutes to use their notes and textbooks to write down as detailed a definition or summary of their term as possible. They are welcome to ask me clarifying questions as well. I then explain to them how the speed dating lesson will work. I arrange the classroom such that the students can sit in two long rows, or perhaps clustered in pairs throughout the room. One half of the students are asked to remain stationary in their seats for the duration of the lesson, while the other half of the students are instructed to shift over one seat, table, or area at the end of every matchmaking period. In each new pairing, I ask the students to exchange information, copying down their partner’s term and definition onto the aforementioned handout. Each matchmaking conversation will last up to five minutes, depending on the duration of the class period and how many students are in the class; during that time, the students are asked to discuss their respective terms and to ascertain how closely they might be connected, taking notes on their observations. Then they privately rank their connection on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the best match and 1 being the least relevant. At any point, the students are allowed to ask me for clarification or assistance, though otherwise I largely act as time-keeper.

With approximately ten or fifteen minutes left in the class period, I ask the students to wrap up their last conversations and turn around to face the blackboard. I give them a minute to assess their rankings and to determine who they think their top match was. At that point, I ask for a volunteer to give their term and definition, then to share which term they chose as their closest match. I then ask which student has the second term, and whether or not they agree. If they do, we declare the pair a match and write them on the board. I then ask the class whether or not any other students also selected either term in the pair as their top choice, and if so, I write those new terms down next to the term with which they matched. If time and room permit, I might also jot down notes as to the rationales the students had for their choices. If the aforementioned second student does not agree, however, I ask them what their top choice was, and we continue the conversation in a similar fashion until all of the students have had the opportunity to report on their choices.

Speed dating, as I mentioned earlier, is a pliable activity. It can work within any kind of music history (or other music-centric) course, survey or otherwise. It can be easily expanded for longer class periods by adding more terms or opportunities to pair up, or conversely shortened for shorter class periods or portions thereof. Not all chosen terms are necessary for this activity to work, so in cases where students are absent without prior notice, the professor need only to leave out whichever terms remain unclaimed. If those terms also need review, they can be added on at the end for group discussion, or the professor can themselves choose a term and join the fray. For very large class sizes with sufficient space, the students can be divided up into smaller groups, each with the same sets of terms; each group can then conduct its own matchmaking session. The discussion resulting from this approach could assess whether each group’s students ended up making similarly ranked choices between terms and explore each group’s rationales in more depth. In such large classes or in breakout sessions, teaching assistants can work with smaller groups either as timekeepers and consultants or as participants themselves. For professors who are tech-savvy, this activity can even be done via Zoom or another online learning platform through breakout rooms. This is a lesson plan that requires little advance planning outside of a vocabulary list and some way for students to keep notes—which, in lieu of a pre-planned handout, could include their own notebook paper or even a digital document.

Whenever I have utilized this speed dating activity in my classes, I have noted that it opens up a robust discussion among the students, who often become invested in explaining their rationales for what they considered to be a close match, even humorously pleading for other students to reconsider their choices and even offering up reconsiderations of their rankings as they hear how their fellow students approached the assignment. Many students also follow up more with detailed questions about particular terms, whether theirs or others, than they would in an ordinary lecture-style class session. Because the students know that there is not necessarily one right answer, they seem to approach the lesson with a bit more curiosity and openness than usual, and the structure of the activity encourages the students to engage almost entirely with each other, relying on me for occasional clarification and general classroom and activity management. Especially at busy times of the semester, this allows the students (and, to be honest, the professor) an oft-needed change of pace. Moreover, it gives the quieter students who might not always wish to speak up in class an opportunity to participate on their own terms, and for students not always comfortable conversing or taking notes quickly in English, it might be useful to begin the activity with written notes and to ask questions of their peers (and of me). I have also noted that students have seemed more comfortable using terms and material reviewed in this activity in future assignments or class discussions. Not only do they use these terms with greater frequency, they also do so with greater accuracy. The activity might lose some of its efficacy if used multiple times a semester, though having an opportunity to do it early on in a given term and then toward the end might prove more rewarding. Between its flexibility in design for the practical parameters of a given class and its ability to meet or enhance a professor’s pedagogical goals, speed dating may well be a useful activity for professors to keep on hand.

I have included below a sample handout for the exercise, to which extra rows or columns can easily be added, and a sample vocabulary list culled from chapters we often cover at the end of my Medieval through Early Baroque survey course.

Karen M. Cook
University of Hartford