RTRL.56: Student Preferences for Music Learning And Music Courses (Pendergast & Robinson, 2020)


Pendergast, S., & Robinson, N. R. (2020). Secondary students’ preferences for various learning conditions and music courses: A comparison of school music, out-of-school music, and nonmusical participants. Journal of Research in Music Education, 68(3), 264-285.

What did the researchers want to know?

In terms of music class, what are secondary students’ preferences for teacher role, group size, repertoire, and class options? Do these preferences differ by socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or whether students participate in school music, out-of-school music, or no music? Why do some students choose not to participate in music?

What did the researchers do?

Pendergast and Robinson surveyed 827 middle and high school students from one urban and one suburban school district who were chosen through stratified random sampling to ensure diversity. The survey included items regarding demographics (gender, ethnicity, free/reduced lunch status, participation in school music, participation in out-of-school music), their learning condition preferences  (group sizes, amount of independent learning, degree of input on repertoire selection), and their interest in various music courses (including piano/guitar, composition with technology, popular music group, large ensemble, history/theory, and world music group).

What did the researchers find?

Overall, the least preferred teacher role was exclusively teacher-led instruction, with only 23.0% of students preferring this option. Teachers sometimes leading was preferred by 43.5%, and learning independently with teacher intervention only when necessary was preferred by 33.5%. Among in-school music participants, only 20.1% preferred exclusively teacher-led instruction. In terms of group size, only 13.3% of students preferred exclusively large group, with 35.9% preferring small groups and 50.8% preferring a mix of large and small groups. In terms of repertoire choice, most students (61.8%) preferred when the teacher and students choose music together, with 28.7% preferring that students select all the music and only 9.6% preferring when teachers select all the music.

All students—even those who participate in school music—expressed the most interest in piano/guitar class. While large ensemble received the second-most interest from in-school music participants, it was rated second-to-last by out-of-school music participants and nonparticipants. The second and third most interesting to those students were music composition class with technology and popular music group.

Pendergast and Robinson found a significant difference in repertoire choice preferences by ethnicity, with Latinx and Black students significantly more likely to prefer that students choose the repertoire. When comparing preferences by music participation group, Pendergast and Robinson found that out-of-school participants and nonparticipants were significantly more likely to prefer small group learning and students choosing the repertoire learned.

When responding to questions on why they were not enrolled in school music, 80.1% of nonparticipants said they were not interested, while 19.6% said they don’t have time and less than 5% said they couldn’t afford an instrument. Among out-of-school music participants, 35.4% said they had no interest, 37% said they did not have time, 9.1% said they couldn’t afford an instrument, and 20.1% indicated “Other.”

What does this mean for my classroom?

While teacher-led, large-group instruction may be the dominant mode in traditional school music classes, this kind of learning may actually be least preferred by students. Music teachers might consider providing opportunities for small group and/or student-led learning experiences. Since Pendergast and Robinson found that very few students prefer having the teacher select all their repertoire, teachers also might consider allowing students to have a voice in choosing the music they will perform. This may be especially critical for teachers who work with Latinx and Black students, as these students were significantly more likely to prefer choosing their own repertoire. Small group learning and student-chosen repertoire may be especially powerful in attracting more students, as they were significantly more preferred by out-of-school participants and nonparticipants.

In addition to adjusting how current music courses operate, that out-of-school participants and nonparticipants rated large ensemble as one of their least desired music class options suggests we should consider adding other types of courses to the curriculum. Doing so might draw in students who are not interested in traditional band, orchestra, and choir offerings but would be interested in other types of much learning. Since over 80% of nonparticipants said they did not enroll in school music because they simply were not interested, it is possible that these students would enroll in another type of music offering they found more compelling. Piano/guitar, music composition class with technology, and popular music group may be promising options, as these were most preferred by out-of-school participants and nonparticipants.

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