Active Learning Strategies for a (Post?) COVID-19 Era Music History Course

Many music history teachers quickly gained facility in the new teaching formats and modes during the pandemic, but change has not stopped. A “new normal,” which can involve face-to-face and hybrid class settings, as well as temporary periods with remote delivery, both invites and requires new and more flexible pedagogical approaches.

Erinn Knyt, University of Massachusetts Amherst

“Things used to be so much simpler,” a former colleague wistfully remarked over lunch a few years ago, as conversation had turned to the transformation of curriculum and teaching practices then taking place.

Brian C. Thompson, 2019

Those words, published by Brian Thompson in 2019, were followed by a maxim that “change is the norm” (Thompson, 2019, p. 235).  When making this statement, Thompson was mainly referring to issues of curricular reform, a topic that has dominated conversations in music history pedagogy circles in recent years; professors have repeatedly debated what should be covered in the music history classroom and how that material should be organized. Consider, for instance, recent articles by J. Peter Burkholder and Melanie Lowe on this topic that discuss the pros and cons of a chronological survey of musical style versus a more topical approach (Burkholder, 2019; Lowe, 2019). José Bowen also argued that change is a natural state, and it should influence how we teach. His emphasis on generational change comes with a reminder that our own experiences might be different than the experiences and pedagogical needs of our students: “we should not assume that just because we have taken college courses that we know how to design them, that what worked for us will work for future students” (Bowen, 2012, p. 96).

Yet, when Thompson and Bowen expressed their ideas, few could have anticipated the rate or degree of change that would suddenly overtake higher learning in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One needs few reminders to recall that in spring 2020, with little time to prepare, and no formal training in online education, many professors were thrust into the new experience of teaching remotely for the first time.

Even while many quickly gained facility in the new teaching formats and modes, change has not stopped. Numerous professors have now transitioned back into physical classrooms, but current teaching conditions do not always resemble those in 2019 and earlier. A “new normal,” as it is sometimes called, which can involve face-to-face and hybrid class settings, as well as temporary periods with remote delivery, both invites and requires new and more flexible pedagogical approaches. Whether that means creatively navigating between face-to-face and remote students in the same class session, projecting vocally through masks while teaching, transitioning back and forth between a physical classroom and remote learning, somehow engaging students in socially distanced classrooms, working with students watching recordings outside of class time, or simply picking up in a similar physical environment but with students who have changed psychologically or emotionally because of the pandemic, pedagogical strategies need to evolve to reflect the rapid changes in modes of delivery.

This essay presents a few ideas about how teaching approaches can change in response to current pedagogical conditions by focusing on flexible ways to engage students on multiple levels. It specifically considers how beneficial alterations to pedagogical practices and assignments that were made during remote delivery during pandemic lockdowns can be profitably transferred back into in-person or hybrid settings. It specifically notes lessons from online teaching that can be used during in-person teaching, as well as other general modifications in order to meet the needs of students today. The greater flexibility these practices and assignments afford, in part because of their use of newer technological tools, can help facilitate communication and collaboration during in-person and hybrid classes, as well as provide continuity during transitions between modes of instruction. These are practices that rely on technological tools and resources, and that prioritize active learning and the “doing” of musicology over the intellectual acquisition of knowledge.

Overall, this essay is divided into two parts, the first focusing on pedagogical methods to enhance in-person or hybrid classes. The second part focuses on assignments that work in flexible learning environments. In the process of proposing active learning activities through the use of emojis and reactions or a focused use of the chat function, along with ideas about interview, field study, and digital archive assignments, it enriches discussions about active learning in the new face-to-face or hybrid classroom. Please note that I am using the term “hybrid” here to refer to classes where some students are participating in face-to-face classroom settings, while others are participating remotely through the use of online platforms, such as Zoom or Google Meet, for instance. The term has been used variously by different scholars.

Ken Bain has already documented that professors who “have achieved a sustained, substantial, and positive influence on how those students think, act, and feel” often understand that knowledge is “constructed, not received” (Bain, 2004, pp. 5 and 26). Numerous additional scholars have also shown that students learn best through praxis-based methodologies. Yet not all practices work well in socially distanced classrooms, and material-based learning activities do not work at all if some students are participating remotely in hybrid class settings. That said, several scholars have suggested practices that can be implemented in the flexible classroom today. Jocelyn Neal, for instance, made a case for online learning blogs to allow quieter voices to be heard on equal footing with the more vocal students (Neal, 2011, p. 84). Neal’s use of learning blogs can facilitate responses from in-person and remote students simultaneously as they voice their ideas on learning management platforms. Sara Haefeli has built upon some of those ideas in her article explaining how on-line blogs can be used to encourage better writing. Her idea to use writing in the classroom with “just-in-time” teaching to aid classroom discussions can also be useful for in-person and hybrid students simultaneously (Haefeli, 2013). Other scholars, such as James Maiello, Thomas Regelski, and Robin Wallace have proposed praxis-based approaches to teaching and assignments (Maiello, 2013; Regelski, 2006; Wallace, 2013). While Wallace primarily intended his ideas for non-major music appreciation classes, his idea to emphasize conceptual listening and active engagement with music over rote memorization can be effectively implemented in hybrid settings. Moreover, some scholars have considered ways to use technology effectively for activities even when teaching in person. Among these, Gregor Novak has written about active learning activities using online technologies, and Bowen has continually contributed ideas about the use of technology in and outside of the classroom (Novak, 1999).

Even so, none of these scholars have directly addressed effective pedagogical practices for the constantly evolving classroom setting today. This essay does just that by considering flexible assignments that work for both remote instruction as well as face-to-face or hybrid teaching, with some modifications. Such flexible pedagogical practices can help foster student engagement in the constantly changing music history classroom today.

Active Learning Methods

Listening with Emojis

There are numerous pedagogical methods that can flexibly transfer between modes of delivery with a creative use of technology in today’s classroom. One example is the use of emojis to aid critical listening skills. For instance, when teaching remotely, technology aided my students’ listening habits when they actively responded to the music in real time using emojis and other visual reactions. I frequently asked my students to respond or choose an emoji to display when they heard important structural moments in the music. It is an inclusive activity that helps to keep them engaged, especially since many are used to responding to life events daily with emojis. Unlike traditional listening activities, this had the added benefit of allowing students to not only demonstrate knowledge, but also emotional reactions and connections to the music.

During a remote class covering blues and early jazz, I incorporated this activity to highlight the formal structure and instrumentation. I started by sharing an image of the score of King Oliver’s “West End Blues” and then played a 1928 recording of the opening passage, asking students to compare what they heard to what they saw. This elicited a few responses about improvisation, blues style vocalizations, blues pitches, and 12-bars blues form. After discussing the stylistic integration of blues, band music, and ragtime in New Orleans style jazz, along with the main instrument groups, the basic formal structure of the music (a chorus of set measures with varied improvisation) and the meaning of the text, I asked students to listen actively to “West End Blues” using emojis or other response symbols to indicate major structural moments in the music as well as changes in front line instruments. As I played a recording of the piece all the way through, students responded with an emoji every time they heard a new chorus, while making a list of featured instruments. Many students had fun choosing different reactions ranging from thumbs up to a heart, a smiling emoji, or a “tada” sign with confetti coming out of a hat. This simple activity of choosing a reaction helped students concentrate better on the music and connect with it. Afterwards, they were more willing to verbally discuss structure, instrumentation, variety in improvisation, and their emotional reactions to the music. This activity could, similarly, be applied to other music to teach about forms and concepts, such as sonata form, thematic material, instruments, or orchestral color.

Image of 12 different emoji faces.
Figure 1. Image of Emoticons. Retrieved from

I missed having this activity in the face-to-face or hybrid classroom because of the ease with which students could react to the music while expressing their emotions. However, this same activity can also be implemented in the hybrid classroom by asking remote students (if they are participating in real time) to continue responding in this manner and then projecting their responses onto a screen in the face-to-face classroom. Louis Epstein intriguingly suggested during the question-and-answer period of the Teaching Music History Day (2021) that this same practice could be continued in person by having students hold up printed papers with emoji designs, and that works well in small classes. However, I personally found this practice somewhat cumbersome and impractical for larger classes, as it requires the professor to enlarge and print out a few common emoji images on paper to distribute to all students and presupposes that these students will remember to bring them to class on a regular basis. In my larger classes, I have instead chosen to rely on technology by asking in-person students to select an emoji image of their choice on a personal electronic device and to hold it up when they hear structural moments. Students are then invited to stand up and share more about what they are hearing and why they chose that particular emoji. 

Use of Chat Function

Another activity that was beneficial in facilitating student communication in remote learning, and that can also be implemented in a physical classroom with some modification, is a focused use of the chat function for review at the beginning of each class session. While only a few students in my undergraduate survey were comfortable talking in the remote classroom, many were willing to write a comment in the chat box. In face-to-face settings, I usually start each class session with about 4–5 minutes of review, asking students to volunteer what they remembered from the previous class session. Both scenarios sometimes resulted in the same three or four students repeatedly responding. However, when I asked for chat comments instead of verbal answers in remote settings, many more students were willing to participate. To add extra incentive, I offer one extra credit point for each chat comment; the extra credit points are applied to the next quiz or test. If a student writes a comment that needs additional clarification, I call on them, and they are often more willing to talk than if they had not written a comment. Otherwise, they follow up with another chat comment. As an alternative to offering extra credit points for comments in the chat during the beginning of class, it is also possible to require a certain number of chat entries throughout the semester for participation credit. One of my colleagues, for instance, requires that his students either chat or speak ten times throughout the semester to achieve a perfect participation grade.

The same function of writing down comments for extra credit can be used in hybrid and face-to-face classes as well. Students watching the class remotely in real time can still provide comments using the chat function in the online platform, and the comments can then be projected or read aloud to students in the physical classroom. A teaching assistant or volunteer student helper could potentially help monitor the hybrid students so that none of the comments are inadvertently overlooked, depending on the size of the class. It is also possible to use the chat function in a learning management system (i.e. Moodle, Blackboard, or another similar system) for in-person students to use in face-to-face settings. That way, quieter students can write down their responses and respond to the comments of other students in real time in class instead of raising their hand to make a comment. The learning management chat comments can also be monitored by a teaching assistant or student helper and read aloud or projected on the screen. Verbal comments can be simultaneously made by students in the room, leading to a rich exchange of both verbal and written ideas. This flexible approach takes advantage of technology and allows students to choose how to express their ideas in ways that best suit their personal preferences or personality.

Group Analysis Project

While emojis have helped with active listening, and the chat function has increased student engagement with review material from previous classes, I have also instituted group score analysis projects. Although initially doing this in remote settings, I have discovered this to be effective in person as well. An added benefit is that it minimizes the exchange of paper, and thus reduces potential transmission of illness. In particular, I allow space in the combined class session for students to do group analyses. For instance, when teaching about contrafacts, and the use of Gershwin’s “Rhythm Changes” in Duke Ellington’s “Cottontail,” I put images of the harmonic patterns in each piece side-by-side and give the whole class about five minutes to compare the chords in each piece. During that time, students can choose to analyze the music on their own or with a neighboring student. In addition, I make the score images accessible on a learning management system for students who might be watching remotely or for those who find it easier/more accessible to look at and enlarge the scores on their own devices. I ask them to make a list of all of the harmonic similarities and differences before having a group discussion. Another example is when I teach the twelve-tone method in relation to Arnold Schoenberg’s Piano Suite, op. 25. I put up an image of the first page of the prelude (and later an image of the first page of the minuet) along with a list of the most commonly used row forms, and asked students to try to figure out how Schoenberg was using the rows. Students were welcome to talk to each other during this time and to take notes. The excitement in the room was palpable as students tried to solve how Schoenberg used these rows differently in different movements of the suite. Students watching online could record their ideas in the chat, monitored by a teaching assistant. After these group analysis projects, I sometimes called student names in batches to ask for volunteers to discuss their results. Since students know they will be responsible for discussing their results, the activity leads to more engagement and interaction from students who do not regularly engage in classroom conversations.

Active Learning Assignments

Interview Assignment

Given the disconnected nature of the COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 eras, I have attempted to make my assignments for remote, in-person, and hybrid classes more flexible and connected to people and life in several ways while also making use of available technology. One of these assignments asked students to interview teachers or musicians they admire using remote platforms. My remote students in 2020–2021 were asked to choose a role model they admired and to conduct an interview (by phone or over Zoom, Google Meet, or a similar platform), before writing a low-stakes essay of about 500 words in response. The essay was worth five percent of their total grade. For this assignment, the students needed to create a set of questions and then submitted a transcript or summary of the responses in conjunction with a brief introductory and concluding paragraph that summarized main points. The current assignment prompt is as follows:

Conduct an interview (i.e., in-person, phone, Zoom, Google Meet, etc., or e-mail) with a musician, composer, arts manager, music scholar, bandleader, or educator that you admire and would consider emulating professionally. Create a set of questions that help you find out more about what they do, the most rewarding part of their job, and the biggest challenges they have encountered in their career. Turn in a summary or transcript of their comments (c. 500 words). Include a paragraph or two in your own words summarizing main points and introducing the person you interviewed.

Several of my students chose to interview family members who are professional musicians or music educators, while others contacted their high school band directors and some interviewed arts managers. In the process, they connected or reconnected with people, even while learning primarily remotely. One student, for instance, interviewed an arts manager from the Silkroad Ensemble over Zoom. In the student’s wide-ranging interview, they detailed the challenges of the job, including fundraising as a nonprofit arts organization, as well as its rewards, such as making the arts more diverse and accessible. That same student later went on to intern with the ensemble. Yet other students interviewed their high school band directors who hoped to provide students with the tools needed to become lifelong musicians. This student wrote about the bandleaders’ creative pedagogical methods, including having instrumental students sing and breathe with the music, or focus on tone quality. In some of the essays, students were able to express their views about the relevance of music in overcoming feelings of isolation throughout the last few years.

Although I assigned interview homework prior to the pandemic, asking students to interview local musicians or scholars in person, the nature of remote teaching in 2020 forced me to creatively think about ways to expand the project. After returning to the classroom in Fall 2021, I decided to keep the expanded version of the assignment and believe that allowing remote interview technologies gives students many more options in regard to whom they can interview. In that way, the assignment can take on a greater relevance for students as they can connect with people all over the world whom they have long admired.

Fieldwork Assignment

Yet another flexible assignment that works well in a variety of modes of delivery is that of musical fieldwork. When teaching the class in person, I had asked students to do fieldwork by observing and documenting informal music making, preferably by amateurs or non-professionals in the community. The students then had to transcribe the music they heard (using traditional or invented notations) and then interview the musicians, putting their comments and notations together into an essay of about 500 words. Their projects ranged from discovering and documenting music at local farmer’s markets, to informal music making in local cafeterias or churches, to singing on a bus.

This kind of fieldwork based on music in the community was rendered difficult by the pandemic and its related closures. As a result, I changed the assignment in 2020 to also include informal music making online. The music making could also be from events that took place in the past. The assignment description is as follows:

Find an example of informal music making (both online recordings and in-person performances will be accepted this semester). In 2–3 pages, describe the music being performed and its social function. In your essay, consider providing a brief notated transcription of the music (using traditional notation or another form of notation better suited to the music) and/or an interview with the performers. Also consider and describe the audience and the social function of the event.

In their response, one student found a video of informal music making in a subway in New York by the brass band Lucky Chops. The student analyzed not only the music, but also the audience and their reactions. Yet another student discovered informal music making by an artist at the Rundle Mall in Adelaide, South Australia, who created riffs on popular songs using PVC pipes. The student analyzed his musical performances and discussed the reactions of the crowd, many of whom were giving the so-called “Pipe Guy” money.

Yet another student described informal music making for the Mid-Autumn Festival, a cultural event and major holiday in many Asian countries. The student documented music making activities in New York and San Francisco on two separate occasions that involved traditional instruments, such as the pipa, dulcimer, and zither. Another student was able to experience informal music making in person, even during the pandemic. The Wachusett Brewery offered socially distanced eating and drinking with live music. On the night the student visited, the Evan Foisy Band was playing and featured a percussionist and guitarist. The student noted that the band played multiple covers of diverse genres to appeal to the wide variety of people watching. The student also compared the atmosphere to what she would imagine an earlier opera audience to be like, in the sense that the audience was conversing and dining but also paying attention to the music they preferred or most appreciated. After returning to in-person classes, I have found it useful to keep the expanded assignment. This has allowed students to listen to music beyond the confines of our local geography if they choose. In this way, some students have listened to music of other cultures or traditions in distant locales, which would not have been possible without the use of technology.

Archival Assignment

Another modified assignment, suitable in various modes of teaching, is an archival research essay assignment. The benefits of incorporating an exploration of archives in research projects has already been discussed by some scholars. However, the materiality of the research was not always possible under pandemic conditions. I used to take my students on a field trip to visit the local Special Collections music archives on our university campus, but this was not possible due to the pandemic. My students previously stated that a highlight of the semester was pouring through old records related to the department and former faculty members in the Special Collections section of the main library on campus. Rather than discontinuing the assignment, I asked students to find online archives that related to their research projects after showing some of the ones I was using in my own work. A sample assignment is as follows:

Visit an archival collection (this can be an online digital archival collection). Choose one collection to study in more detail. In 2–3 typed pages, describe the contents of the collection and how they could be used as the basis for a research paper, project, or thesis. Ideally, choose an online archive that could be useful for your final research project. Some examples of digital collections can be found in the following places. (Please search for a collection in one of the following places or elsewhere, related to your interests):

Library of Congress:

New York Public Library:

New York Philharmonic Archives:

Boston Symphony Orchestra Archives:

Hogan Jazz Archive:

This online archive search proved to be as exciting, and in some ways more relevant, for my students. One student, for instance, was comparing Norwegian musical elements in the music of Edvard Grieg and Christian Sinding. He found many helpful letters at the Edvard Grieg Collection at the Bergen Öffentlichen Bibliothek that greatly aided his research. He used online translation tools to help with the languages, and also learned to decipher the handwriting that he was reading. Another of my students who was writing about British women composers in the nineteenth century spent time getting acquainted with the ProQuest database of British periodicals. Although the student noted some of the difficulties in searching the collection, they also discovered some valuable articles, such as one from 1885 on Emma R. Steiner, an American conductor and composer who had recently completed an English tour. At the same time, the student encountered several articles disparaging women as incapable as creators and composers in comparison to men. Yet another student chose an online archive, the Tanzania Heritage Project, that was personally interesting, even if it was not related to their final research project. The archive consists of recordings from 1951–1990 that range from Jazz to orchestral music to Indigenous music. The student mentioned being fascinated by the Wanatembea Ndio Walio Hai played by Werema Masiaga Chacha for the Litungu instrument and music from the Wagogo community.

Image of the header banner from the Tanzania Heritage Project website.
Figure 2. Image Sourced from the Tanzania Heritage Project:

Yet another student, a saxophone player, spent time examining the Hogan Jazz Collection that contains the Ralston Crawford Collection of Jazz Photography, the Louisiana Sheet Music Collection, the Hogan Jazz Archive Photography Collection, the Riverboats and Jazz Online Exhibit, and the Early New Orleans Jazz Posters Online Exhibit. In their report, they focused on images in the Ralston Crawford Collection of Jazz Photography, which documents musical life in New Orleans from 1947–1960. Although that student ended up writing their final paper on a different topic, this proved to be a helpful exercise. They ultimately chose to discuss the origins of the Jazz program at the New England Conservatory and were able to connect with the archivist there to access some records digitally that aided their research.

While nothing quite replicates the act of holding material objects during an in-person trip to Special Collections, my students rarely ever incorporated what they found in Special Collections into their research projects. In fact, what they discovered usually had nothing to do with their unique research interests. After seeing the way that having students search for online archives in areas of personal interest instilled an interest in primary sources and in discovering materials related to their specific areas of research, I have continued with this particular approach to the assignment even after returning to face-to-face classes and have been excited to watch students develop projects using primary source documents they found in their searches. This also allows engagement from students participating in classes in a hybrid manner.


In an age of unprecedented change, choosing pedagogical methods and assignments that are flexible and available to students in a range of modalities can be key to engaging students on multiple levels and to adapting to the evolving music history classroom. It can take some creativity to design or redesign assignments to work in the fluid classrooms in which we teach today. Although we cannot change the conditions that have required rapid adaptation, we can respond with flexibility and compassion for our students as we devise more inclusive activities and assignments.

Because some of the assignments or activities designed for remote settings can still live on after returning to the classroom with modification, face-to-face and hybrid students remain appreciative of varied activities and assignments, many of which make personalized approaches to studying and researching about music history possible. In their anonymous end-of-semester student reviews, one student from a hybrid music history survey course covering music from 1700–1900 described their gratefulness for the types of assignments given and how relevant they were to their areas of interest: “It was nice to get more individualized time on our papers, and also get to do projects that helped us learn about the concepts more in-depth.”

While this essay has proposed a few tangible ways to adapt to the rapid changes in recent years, there are still plenty of other tools, methods, and assignments that can be flexibly implemented in classrooms today. While it is rewarding to again see and interact with students face-to-face, the post-pandemic classroom will never be quite the same again—nor should it be. As students evolve, pedagogical strategies and assignments should evolve too, making our teaching even more rich and varied.

Erinn Knyt,

Note: I am grateful to my editors for their thoughtful reading of this essay: Brooke McCorkle Okazaki and Jessica Getman. Finally, I am thankful for my students who were willing to let me discuss their projects here: Allison Burke, Tiffany Chan, Rachael Chen, Sarah Van Ells, and other unnamed students. All examples are discussed with permission from the students.


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