The biggest challenge when teaching new content is one of attention and engagement.  If students aren’t engaged, they won’t pay good attention to the content; if they don’t pay good attention, they won’t encode the information robustly, meaning that the initial memory trace of that content will be weak; and when the initial memory trace is weak, students may come to class the next day and act as if they’ve never seen the content before, meaning you’re right back to square one.  Now you have to go back and re-teach the content, resulting in a lot of lost instructional time.

Has this ever happened to you?  Sure!  It’s happened to every teacher on the planet at one time or another.  But just because this is a common experience doesn’t make it any more enjoyable.  The question is, what do we do about it?

Clearly, one of the keys to being more effective in teaching new content is to make sure that students are highly engaged during the initial input.  There are many ways to present material in an engaging way, including presenting the material in a multi-sensory fashion, finding ways to tap into students’ emotions concerning the content, framing the relevance of the content to students’ lives, and/or telling a story concerning the content.

But we all know that there are many kinds of learners, and a strategy that works well for one student doesn’t always work well for another.  Plus, you don’t always have a story to go along with the day’s content, and it’s sometimes hard to find an emotional hook or to frame the relevance of the material to students.  Consequently, good teachers are always on the lookout for new approaches that they can use to reach more students.

A recent study demonstrates one way to get students highly engaged during the input of new content that you might not have thought of using: content-embedded music videos.  Take a look at what the researchers found, and you might just be tempted to add this input medium to your tool box of engaging input strategies.

Sing-a-long Science

In the study (Crowther et al., 2016), researchers exposed over 1,000 subjects (primarily K-12 students) to science content embedded in two types of musical presentations.  One type of input medium was composed of a recorded song with content embedded in the lyrics, with the lyrics presented visually on screen (as in a PowerPoint presentation) while the song was playing.  The second presentation medium was the same recorded song accompanied by a music video (designated as the “visually rich version” of the material in the study) instead of the lyrics being shown on a screen.  All together, the researchers conducted three different experiments, with very interesting results.

In the first experiment, subjects took an online pre-test over the material covered by the video, then proceeded to watch one of the two presentation modes of the video (randomly assigned), which was then followed by the post-test consisting of the same questions as the pre-test.  Using this protocol, the researchers found that subjects showed statistically significant learning of the science content after thirteen of the fifteen videos, and this improvement occurred in both the lyrics-only mode and the music video mode.  This learning was demonstrated by scoring well on both knowledge and comprehension questions (Bloom’s Taxonomy, levels one and two) following the videos.  Subjects did not improve on a “bonus question” included in the test that asked about content not covered in the videos.

In the second experiment, subjects either listened to a song with embedded science content or listened to the same content presented in spoken form.  Both presentation modes were accompanied by simple visual presentation of the lyrics on screen with or without a very simple graphical image.  Students were tested on their learning following the presentation, and were also asked about their enjoyment (or not) of the presentation form and whether or not they would watch/listen to similar videos to learn science content in the future if provided the option.  The results of this experiment showed that there was no statistical difference in subjects’ test scores between the musical and spoken versions.  However, subjects reported enjoying the musical presentations of the material more and reported a preference for watching more presentations like the music videos in the future.

In the third experiment, subjects either listened to/watched a music video (“Fossil Rock Anthem,” a play on the popular song, “Party Rock Anthem”) or listened to a spoken-word version with the lyrics presented on screen.  Pre- and immediate post-tests showed that students in the spoken-word version scored slightly better than those who watched the music video version.  However, on a delayed test given twenty-eight days after the initial test, those subjects in the music video group showed that they had retained more of the information long-term than those in the spoken-word group.  Additionally, subjects in the music video group more frequently rated their experience as “fun” and appeared more likely to watch the video again and/or share the video with others.

What can we take away from this set of experiments?  Overall, these studies showed that:

1. Content embedded in a musical presentation (with either a “music video”-type visual component or a more simple visual presentation of the song’s lyrics) can lead to significant learning of science content;

2. That spoken-word versions of content-embedded song lyrics might have a slight advantage for short-term learning purposes over music video-type presentations of the same material;

3. That, on the other hand, the music video-type presentations seemed to stick with learners longer, conferring on learners an advantage in long-term memory; and

4. That students seem to enjoy learning in this modality (musical presentation), and that they are more likely, after viewing a musical presentation of this type, to watch it again if given the chance and/or to share it with others.

Clearly, musical presentations of content show important benefits for learning, enjoyment, and motivation.  My guess is that the more stripped-down spoken word versions of the content held a slight advantage during immediate testing because there was less interference (from visuals) to compete with the content in working memory.

On the other hand, the long-term retention advantage demonstrated by the music video versions indicates to me that the material was more richly encoded at learning, allowing better consolidation and embedding more retrieval cues into the learning.  Regardless of the exact mechanisms at work here, it’s obvious that music videos have a place as one more powerful tool for inputting new content in the classroom.

Using Music for Content Learning: A Short How-To List

While the study listed above is fascinating and gives those of us interested in using music in the classroom some solid research to support our ideas, it doesn’t really talk much about implementing such instruction in a classroom setting.  So, to extend this topic a bit further, here are a few pointers to think about as you contemplate how you might add this fun and exciting teaching strategy into your instruction.

Also, keep in mind that, even though the study discussed above was conducted using science content, this strategy will work with content knowledge from any content area.

How-To #1: You Still Have to Teach!

I think it’s important to point out here that, even if you create a great content-embedded music video to use in your teaching, you still have to teach the content in other ways.  First of all, it’s hard to embed all the information you want students to remember into one song (if you’ve never tried it, just take my word for it).  And even if you did, song lyrics are generally not going to be able to teach the content conceptually at a deep level.  Song lyrics (like other mnemonic devices) are best used to solidify terminology and basic facts and make them easier to recall.  So, by all means, if you want to try your hand at it, write a song and put it to a well-known tune (or even create your own tune), but make sure you teach the content in other ways, as well.

How-To #2: Play the Song More Than Once

No matter how good the song is, one presentation of it isn’t going to create solid long-term memories of the content in students’ minds.  I suggest you introduce the song early in the unit where you’re going to teach the content, playing it once through even before you’ve begun teaching the content.  Give all students a copy of the lyrics before you play the song (if you haven’t created a music video version, and even if the only “video” you show is the lyrics on a screen).  They will then have the lyrics to look at during other presentations of the song, or whenever they want to use the lyrics to review the information.

Then, as you teach the content embedded in the song, play and/or sing (by yourself or with students) the song again.  Following this presentation, play the song a few more times (during “sponge” times, transitions, or as a review).  While research (including the study cited today) has shown that a single spoken word presentation of the lyrics is as good as a musical presentation if each mode is just presented once, other research has shown that hearing a musical version more than once has a distinct advantage over hearing a spoken version multiple times (Wallace, 1994).

How-To #3: Turn Your Students into Singer-Songwriters and Video Producers

If you work with older students, and if you feel you have a little extra time in the unit in question, you can take this up a level by challenging your students to create music videos for learning.  First, teach the content for understanding, then divide the students into groups and go over what content you want each student group to include in their songs.  Give them whatever tips you feel might be helpful about song structure, run through a model or two, and then turn them loose to create.  In my experience, this works best if the groups use a known tune on which to structure their lyrics (as Crowther did with “Fossil Rock Anthem”).

You could just have them create songs and perform them for the class, but if you want to go all in, you could also discuss video techniques, look at some music video models, and have them create and record their songs as music videos.  I promise you, the kids will have a blast, but this can take a while (which is why I said, “if you feel you have a little extra time” above).  Only you can make the call as to whether you believe this would be a good use of class time.  One major advantage of doing this, though, is that you can keep the recordings and use them in your class next year.

If you have never tried using music for teaching content, I encourage you to think about it and explore the possibilities (during this over summer break gives you more time to think and plan).  You might want to plan on working some of these ideas into a few of your units first to “get your feet wet” before trying to do it in every unit.  But, many teachers I know have gotten hooked on using music in their teaching once they tried it for the first time.

If you have questions or concerns, I’d love to hear them, and I’d be happy to share any ideas I have with you.  You can e-mail me at info@teachingthatsticks.com, or if you want a lot more advice and research on the whole topic of using music in the classroom for multiple purposes, by all means get a copy of The Rock ‘N’ Roll Classroom, in which Rich Allen and I cover many other uses of music for teaching and classroom management.

Sources

Allen, R., and Wood, W. W.  (2013).  The rock ‘n’ roll classroom: Using music to manage mood, energy, and learning.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Crowther, G. J., McFadden, T., Fleming, J. S., and Davis, K.  (2016).  Leveraging the power of music to improve science education.  International Journal of Science Education, 38(1): 73-95.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09500693.2015.1126001

Wallace, W. T.  (1994).  Memory for music: Effect of melody on recall of text.  Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 20(6): 1471-1485.