Music, School of


Date of this Version



Indiana Theory Review 33 (2017): 153–82.


Copyright © 2017 The Trustees of Indiana University


Assessment in aural skills courses is a tricky intersection of instructors’ expectations, students’ skills in audiation, students’ perceptions and anxieties regarding assessment and performance, and the peculiarities of evaluative instruments. After several years in my teaching position at a large university, I became increasingly dissatisfied with assessment in the second-year aural skills program I coordinate. In short, I was displeased both with the nature of the student activities we evaluated and with the ways in which success on those activities was measured. Students’ and instructors’ frustrations convinced me of the need to make assessment more obviously relevant, less intimidating to students, and more reflective of students’ success in mastering the skills we hope to foster. My hope in sharing the problems I identified, and my responses to them, is to inspire introspection about what our aural skills assessment methods actually measure, the expertise we intend for students to gain from this part of their music studies, and the potentially dangerous distance between these two things.

I must acknowledge in advance that, throughout this article, I presume an orthodox approach to collegiate aural skills instruction. Such an approach provides students with strategies for completing common audiation activities such as melodic and harmonic dictation and sightsinging, alongside in-class practice employing these strategies. Students’ mastery of audiation skills is tested periodically with dictation activities (i.e., quizzes and/or exams) and singing activities (i.e., “hearings” or “audits”), student performance on these activities is measured with an assessment tool, and the measurement becomes a basis for students’ grades in the class.

It would be disingenuous to imply that this model is the only way in which an aural skills curriculum could work, or that it is without its faults. But rather than attacking this broad-stroked outline, which mirrors normative curricular practice at a great many American postsecondary schools that offer music degrees (including my own), in this essay I will consider closely the role and makeup of assessment activities in this model. Doing so can strengthen the student outcomes of such programs—and our measurements of those outcomes—without upsetting the entire curricular apple cart.

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