Assessment symposium

13-14 September 2022, LATIMPE and Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama hosted a digital symposium on assessment, reflection, and critique in higher music performance education.

Description Inside the black box

Assessment is the crucial battle field – students will always look at assessment as the defining moment to understand how their education is shaped and what their place in all this is. (Susanne van Els, AEC SMS Working Group 5)

– Assessment has become a central topic in higher music education institutions as well as in general education, Jon Helge Sætre, chair of WG5 stated in the introduction.

We have seen a general shift from formal assessment of grades and exams, to formative ways of assessing. New concepts have entered the discourse, such as assessment as learning, peer assessment, self-assessment, and assessment for learning. Over 20 years ago, Black and William (1998) called the classroom a “black box” where we insert certain inputs and expect certain outputs. But what do we know about what is going on inside the box? Or for higher music education, in instrumental lessons, chamber music rehearsals, and music theory and history classes? And what do we know about the assessment practices that take place inside the box? This symposium was an attempt to get closer to describing the content of the higher music education ‘black box’.

Assessment as dialogue

For the symposium, we invited scholars and teachers to present and discuss experiences, perspectives and examples of how assessment effects, connects with and influences students’ learning on the following topics:

  • Student voice in assessment situations
  • Teacher collaboration in assessment situations
  • Learning community
  • Assessment as dialogue
  • Assessment in times of change

Assessment in context

– Assessment in music performance education is often done in its natural context. Critique and reflection take place in context and through context, as Lars Brinck pointed out. To our institutions, where individual and small group tuition is the norm, feedback is a natural and integrated part.

For the Learning and Teaching Working Group, a central idea has been that of the student as a researching artist (Sætre et. al., 2019). A student that has ownership and agency in his or her education and artistic development.

Student-centred assessment?

–  What if assessment becomes more student-centred? If the student acts as a reflective, responsible artist also in assessment situations?

The question was posed by Susanne van Els member of the AEC-SMS Learning and Teaching working group. This is even more relevant in light of the article by Helena Gaunt and colleagues, with the title Musicians as makers in society (Gaunt et. al., 2021). This represents a shift inside institutions from competing priorities to collaborative values, and a shift towards connecting societal and artistic vision and practice to a greater extent. If students are to become makers in society, how can this be reflected in the assessment practices inside our institutions?

The use of language in assessment

Bodil Kvernenes Nørsett is a Ph. D-student at the University in Agder, exploring vocal students´ assessment literacy in higher music education for popular music. Through a mixed-methods study, Nørsett has dived into the students’ perception and verbalized language in the context of the popular vocal performance examination.

The data analysis results indicate that vocalist students find assessment to be an incentive for improvement and development, motivation, confirmation of status quo, and an important place for feedback from an outside (examiner) perspective. Communication and vocal technique were the two criteria mentioned by most students. The students’ were also ambivalent in their perceptions of assessment. Some liked the extra pressure and experienced that it made them more focused, while others experienced performance anxiety around assessment situations. An issue that caused discussion at the symposium was what Nørsett pointed to as a lack of a common language – how can we strengthen assessment literacy?

The starting point for the next learning experience

Natalie Roymans, director of the theatre at Toneelacademie Maastricht, institute of performative arts, described the transition to programmatic assessment at the Toneelacademie in her presentation. Key aims for the transition have been greater transparency in assessment, a new teaching language, and strengthened agency of the student.

At the Toneelacademie they felt troubled by the way they had been assessing their students in the past:

– We gave them pieces of a sausage and expected them to put the sausage into a whole again by themselves. (Nathalie Roymans)

Furthermore, they experienced students who relied heavily on their teachers for assessing their outcomes and felt uncomfortable by the fact that the student being assessed did not have a place at the table in the assessment situations.

Agreeing on assessment criteria

First, students and teachers discussed the terminology used in assessment situations previously and agreed on 21 criteria in the three domains of knowledge, skills, and attitudes. At the beginning of each semester, all students formulate a personal learning question, applying the academy’s learning language, in dialogue with their mentor. In the self-evaluation at the end of the semester, the student reflects on her learning process, using the agreed-upon criteria.

The assessment during the semester is structured as an ongoing dialogue. Roymans reported that the direct and continuous communication between students and teachers creates both an intimate and safe learning community for students.

– The development of artists is ultimately about specificity, and not about conforming to generic criteria. Knowledge, skills, and attitudes are weighed against each other and assessed as a whole.

Each assessment situation is a learning moment, intended to guide and stimulate the learning process. There are many different assessment moments and a clear schedule for this including a variety of forms and responsibilities. The summative assessment meeting is therefore not an end-point, but rather the beginning of a new trajectory.

Key learning points

Roymans listed several key learning points from the process they have started at Toneelacademie. Among those are:

  • Assessment literacy – Everyone needs to be fluent in the language we are using in assessment situations
  • Changing assessment can be a forceful agent in changing learning and teaching practices
  • The authority of the teacher does not lie in the authority to assess students. The authority lies in the art and the profession itself.

Critical dialogue in peer groups

Anna Maria Bordin is Professor of piano of the Conservatory Paganini of Genoa and a member of the AEC-SMS Learning and Teaching Working Group.

In March 2021, the Working Group observed two digital KUA-classes at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory.
In the KUA-class, students meet weekly to present, discuss and reflect on the students’ artistic work processes and products. The classes have a teacher present, but he or she is merely there to facilitate the discussion among the students. Students actively and curiously engage in each other’s artistic projects through critical dialogues and supportive feedback, showing both great autonomy and competence in giving feedback.

(Read more about the KUA-class at

Testing the model in another context

Bordin tested a similar model of critical dialogue with four piano students at the Conservatory Paganini in Genoa. The aim was to collect opinions, criticalities, and strengths from students in other musical contexts and at other academic levels of study. The students received a video recording of another student’s performances a couple of days before the meeting to have time to listen carefully and prepare the group dialogue. They were asked to express one positive feedback and one opinion that could improve the performance. During the meeting, students explained their observations, and the student receiving the feedback could listen and respond as well.
The session was held on the Zoom platform and lasted about an hour and a half.

Uncomfortable, yet rewarding

The students had all prepared well, and listened carefully to the pre-recorded performances, verifying the score and trying to understand the expressive intentions of the performer that was playing. Although students felt a bit uncomfortable and were afraid to hurt the feelings of peers, they felt it was a rewarding experience. The students also reported listening to their own playing more carefully after the experience of listening attentively to their peers’ performances.

Student-led musical performance workshops

Carl Holmgren is a Ph. D-student at the Piteå School of Music, Luleå University of Technology. At the symposium, Holmgren presented results from a participatory action research project on developing a model for participatory instrumental teaching within higher music education (reported in Holmgren, 2020). Through the action research project, Holmgren aimed to empower the students to formulate and argue for their opinions and artistic choices in a dialogical and collaborative setting.

Dialogue-based workshops

Together with four piano students at a bachelor’s program in music performance in Sweden, a response model was discussed and implemented. One week before each workshop, the students scanned their scores, audio recorded their performances, described where they were in their interpretational process, and included questions directing the desired response. All participants shared their written responses, and students beforehand selected topics to focus on during the workshop.

Breaking from the master-apprenticeship model

Holmgren found that the students were not used to verbalising their thoughts about musical interpretation and assessment thereof. To them, the workshops offered a meaningful context, described as collaborative, dialogical, characterised by openness, humility, honesty, and mutual understanding. In this setting, musical interpretation was viewed as a complex, ongoing, open-ended process, allowing for multiple, incompatible views, breaking from the master-apprentice model and the current restrictive ideology of Western classical music.

– Consequently, further developing such workshops and investigating how instrumental teaching can be conceived as a collaborative laboratory with dialogical feedback and assessment, shifting the teacher’s function to a facilitator and fellow traveler seems promising, Holmberg concluded in his presentation. 

Writing as part of students’ artistic development

At the Norwegian Academy of Music, Johan A. O. Jørgensen as head of the library has started a writing center for the music students. The initiators of the center have investigated how to implement writing as a key skill within several courses, and how writing can benefit the students’ artistic development. Currently, written assignments are used not only as a product to be assessed, but as a way to encourage reflection and fuel students’ performance practice, progress, and projects.

A way ahead for assessment of music performance 

Over the two days, several issues were raised. Among those were: 

  • Assessment literacy – how can we create a common language for the criteria used in assessment? And also, how can we train everyone involved in assessment in using this common language, understanding the why and how of (this specific) assessment, and being ready to assess or be assessed?
  • How can we change assessment from being the end station to instead being the starting point for the next adventure? 
  • How can we create the situation that assessment is a moment of learning for all involved, also the teachers, also the institution?
  • How can we give students a place at the table, also in assessment situations? 
  • How do we build students’ expertise and confidence in giving feedback to peers, and in expressing, evaluating, and articulating artistic choices and taste? 
  • And how can we challenge the power dynamics of the traditional assessment situation?