Composing a class (4/4: Participation & feedback)

In this series, I’m exploring how to “compose” a class. This may be redundant for experienced educators. But if you’re a grad student or new adjunct professor, hopefully these thoughts will be useful.

In the previous posts, I discussed laying out the schedule, then delivery methods and activities. I’d like to wrap up in this post and discuss participation and feedback.

Classes are collaborations

I always ask students how the class is going for them, halfway or ⅔ through. Students tend to be positive, yet honest in these conversations. They can tell that, by even asking, I really care about their learning and value their goals. It shows that I consider class a collaborative process, and students have some (perhaps indirect) say in how the class proceeds.

I love this list of “rules for teachers and students,” shown below. The idea to “consider everything an experiment” particularly resonates with me. I am up front with students when I am trying something new. They probably see my teaching thought process more than they can with any other teacher. And this is because I want to justify what we are doing and show students why it’s important. This transparency has served me well.

10 rules for students and teachers

This list also shows what students need to bring to the table. Students have to pull everything out of their teacher and their fellow students. In music, we talk about the “energy” coming from the audience. Although I don’t think we should consider students a passive “audience,” there is real energy to be felt by engaged students who are answering and asking questions, trying out their skills, and going the extra mile where they can.

Participation is hard 

Some students will naturally participate. They are happy to learn, confident in their level of knowledge and skill. Many others want to be “fed” info. This is what they are used to. It’s what Paolo Friere called the “banking model” back in the late 1960s (teachers deposit knowledge into their students’ brains/banks). 

Some students are just shy. We need to recognize this, not punish it. Find different ways for these students to participate. A shy student may be perfectly comfortable talking in a small group, but be intimidated by a 30+ person class. If time allows, some on-on-one interactions with the professor can also be helpful. Peer critique, group projects, etc. etc. can be ways to engage folks who are less inclined to participate.

Instilling this desire to learn, beyond the need to memorize info for a test, is the biggest challenge of teaching. Providing a variety of ways to learn will help you reach more students.

Feedback is vital

Students need to know how they are progressing. It’s nerve-wracking and discouraging to wait for midterms or finals to learn one’s grade. Plus, test scores only tell part of the story.

Giving feedback is a learned skill. Like a physician’s “bedside manner,” you need a “deskside manner” that is encouraging, yet realistic. Consider the “sandwich method,” where you have a positive note at the beginning and end, with constructive criticism in the middle.

For example, take my advanced audio course I discussed in the second post. For each mix, the students submitted a final mixdown .wav file, as well as their Pro Tools session. This way I could 1) see that they know how to create a final mixdown, and 2) look closely at the inner-workings of their project. Here is the kind of feedback I could give:

  • This mix is sounding really nice so far–good balance between the instruments.
  • I see that you accidentally created two mono files, rather than a stereo interleaved file. Make sure to double-check this next time!
  • We are shooting for a peak at -0.5dB, and you are peaking at -8.9. Feel free to push the levels some more.
  • I see that you were trying to use parallel compression. Unfortunately, the way you routed this, the unprocessed channel does not go to the main mix, only to the Bus. So we don’t actually have parallel compression–just one channel of compression!
  • We are getting a little harsh in the high frequency range. I noticed on several of your EQs that you are pushing around 3-5kHz. If you’re looking for more presence on those tracks, you might consider where you could subtract those frequencies from other tracks. Remember, EQ is for carving frequencies away to allow other sounds to shine 🙂
  • I can tell you’re listening and thinking hard on these. Each mix has been getting better and better!

I coupled specific solutions with more general, even philosophical ideas. But I try to do this in a friendly way. I see no point in being some aloof “master” bringing down knowledge from on high. I’m a guide, and I’m still learning as well. I think that comes across.


Thanks for taking the time to read this series on Composing a Class. This is in no way a complete teaching method. Rather, it’s some food for thought to help those just starting on the educator’s journey. I hope some of my thoughts will prove useful as you compose your own class!

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