In June I attended the American Physiological Society’s Institute on Teaching and Learning (ITL) for the first time. It was a fantastic week of presentations, workshops, and networking, from the opening keynote address on “Student-instructor interactions in a large-group environment” by Prem Kumar (University of Birmingham, UK) to the closing plenary talk on “Inclusive practices for diverse student populations” by Katie Johnson (Beloit College).
The week is hard to summarize concisely, yet I can easily identify my most memorable moment. That occurred on Wednesday morning (June 20th). Robert Bjork, a UCLA psychologist, had just delivered a fascinating plenary talk on learning, forgetting, and remembering information. He had reviewed several lines of evidence that the memorization process is more complicated than tucking facts into a mental freezer where they persist forever. Instead, the timing and context of information retrievals can profoundly affect the success of subsequent retrievals.
At the end of the lecture, I stood up with a question (or possibly a monologue masquerading as a question). “It seems that maintaining long-term memories is a really active, dynamic process,” I said. “The brain seems to be constantly sorting through and reassessing its memory ‘needs,’ somewhat like the way the kidney is constantly sifting through the plasma to retain some things and discard others. Is that a reasonable analogy?”
“Yes it is,” he answered politely. “Perhaps,” he added, “you could write a paper on the ‘kidney model’ of how the brain learns.”
“I can do even better than that,” I said. “Here’s a song I wrote about it!” And I launched into an impromptu a cappella rendition of “Neurons Like Nephrons” (http://faculty.washington.edu/crowther/Misc/Songs/NLN.shtml).
In any case, singing is not just a mechanism for hijacking Q&A sessions at professional development conferences; it can also be done in the classroom. And this example of the former, while unusual in and of itself, hints at several useful lessons for the latter.
- Unexpected music gets people’s attention. In truth, I have no idea whether most ITL attendees found my song fun or helpful. Still, I’m quite sure that they remember the experience of hearing it. Now think about your own courses. Are there any particular points in the course where you desperately need students’ undivided attention? Unexpected singing or rapping is amazingly effective as an attention-grabber, even (especially?) if the performer is not a gifted musician. Don’t be afraid to use this “nuclear option.”
- Music is not just for “making science fun” and memorizing facts. Many teachers and students who support the integration of music into science courses do so because they think it’s fun and/or useful as a mnemonic device. Both reasons are legitimate; we do want our courses to be fun, and our students do need to memorize things. But music can be much more than an “edutainment” gimmick. “Neurons Like Nephrons” (http://faculty.washington.edu/crowther/Misc/Songs/NLN.shtml), for example, develops an analogy between the way that the brain processes information and the way that the kidney processes plasma. It’s not a perfect analogy, but one worthy of dissection and discussion (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2016/11/14/imperfect-analogies-shortcuts-to-active-learning/). Songs like this one can thus be used as springboards to critical thinking.
- The effectiveness of any musical activity is VERY context-specific. After my musical outburst at ITL, I was flattered to receive a few requests for a link to the song. I was happy, and remain happy, to provide that. (Here it is yet again: http://faculty.washington.edu/crowther/Misc/Songs/NLN.shtml.) But here’s the thing: while you are totally welcome to play the song for your own students, they probably won’t love it. To them, it’s just a weird song written by someone they’ve never heard of. They won’t particularly care about it unless the production quality is exceptional (spoiler: it’s not) or unless they are going to be tested on the specific material in the lyrics. Or unless you take other steps to make it relevant to them – for example, by challenging them to sing it too, or to explain what specific lines of lyrics mean, or to add a verse of their own.
In conclusion, music can function as a powerful enhancer of learning, but it is not pixie dust that can be sprinkled onto any lesson to automatically make it better. As instructors, for any given song, you should think carefully about what you want your students to do with it. That way, when the music begins, the wide-eyed attention of your incredulous students will be put to good use.