This paper examines the use of cognitive principles as a basis for designing and implementing a diagnostic placement examination in aural skills for first-year students at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
THE PROBLEM: Traditional methods of assessing and evaluating the aural skills of incoming college music students have proven to be ineffective predictors of success in traditional aural skills curricula. These methods--interval and chord-quality identification, error detection, dictation, and sight singing--are at best snapshots of students’ achievements in these specific activities. Future achievement in aural training seems to hinge not so much on students’ proficiency in such complex behaviors but on much more basic aural abilities and skills.
THE SOLUTION: A ten-minute aural examination was devised based on research in musical intelligence, learning sequence, pitch discrimination, musical memory, and tonal perception. This examination tests such fundamental skills as pulse inference, pitch matching, short-term rhythm and pitch memory, extractive memory, and tonic inference. During the test, students sing and clap their responses to test items and an audio recording of these responses is made for later assessment and evaluation. The results are interpreted and used to place students in either of two curricular tracks in aural skills.
This paper presents the cognitive principles underlying the designs of the various test items and explores the interpretations of various responses to each item. The pedagogical designs for the two curricular tracks are examined, with an eye toward how specific goals and methods of this curriculum are dependent on the perceptual and cognitive skills measured by the examination. The paper also explores how best to develop the skills of those individuals exhibiting specific deficiencies on the examination. The paper goes on to investigate correlations between diagnostic examination scores and actual achievement during the academic year. Student achievement in the years before and after implementation of the two-track curriculum is also compared.