The value of action research in music education classrooms

All teachers encounter struggles with their students. But rather than relying on a few field anecdotes, what if you could identify a teaching challenge and develop a systematic action plan customized to your students’ needs and skill sets?

This concept is the focus of a pair of courses that are part of the Hugh Hodgson School of Music’s online Masters of Music Education program at the University of Georgia, and its students—professional educators—are seeing positive results.

The Action Research courses—taught by assistant professor of music education Brian Wesolowski—are described as a “two-semester sequence of study that allows [students] to focus on a particular aspect of [their] teaching.”

The first semester is devoted to researching and gathering information on a particular problem or topic specific to the student with the goal of creating a “proposal for a quantitative action research project” that will be carried out in the second semester.

Although music teachers generally feel attuned to their students musical and emotional needs, conducting action research on their classes can lead to unexpected results.

Jenna Thayer, North Hall Middle School choral educator in Gainesville, GA, studied adolescent male vocal self-efficacy levels. Prior to the study, Thayer believed students struggled because their voices had not yet fully transitioned. After analyzing the results, she found self-efficacy levels were highest among younger students, before voice transitions occurred.

Melissa Farr, a Gwinnett County Schools band director, found interesting and surprising results when conducting a motivation and feedback study with her band students. Anna Franks, a choral educator at Saddle Ridge Elementary Middle School in Lafayette, GA “investigated the effect of working memory training on sight-reading abilities of beginning adolescent musicians.”

“The results suggested that the methods did not assist the students in sight-reading, but we found that they could be helpful while learning performance repertoire,” said Franks. “I hope to continue investigating the use of these techniques for repertoire learning and rehearsal during the upcoming school year.”

Other aspects of the action research sequence were additionally beneficial. Developing valid research questions increased awareness of what was actually going on in the classroom. Conducting the study and building a review of literature led to discovering other strategies researchers found most effective with particular age groups.

The idea of conducting research intimidates many music teachers who have little to no experience reading or understanding statistics or research terminology—this was the case for some of the teachers who began these Action Research courses—but, completing the courses provided the educators insights and new perspectives on research and effective approaches to improve teaching skills.