Creating Learning Experiences with Music Games

By DoIT Communications Department
January 09, 2013

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Professor Jamie Henke was challenged with how to get students in her Music Theory class to spend time on class material outside of class. Ear training, an essential part of learning music, could only be effectively done outside the classroom setting.

“Learning music without listening to and arranging it [i.e., ear training] is like learning a foreign language by memorizing words and never speaking,” says Henke. With so much competition for students’ time, Henke had to find a way to get them to want to learn, not simply a way to force them to do drill exercises.

In addition, her students had a wide range of music experience coming in to the course; some were only one class away from declaring a music major while others had virtually no musical experience. Creating activities that would appeal to students of all levels was not a simple task.

With an Engage Innovation Award, Henke and a team of educational designers and developers created a perfect solution--a group of self-paced music games that students are excited to play and actively seek out. The goal was to “create an environment where students who’ve never played an instrument before can get experience,” says Henke.

The team first created Melody Mixer, a game that covers both intellectual content from class and the ear training piece that is so essential to learning music. Players are presented with the written music of famous composers and tasked with arranging the measures in the correct order. For advanced users, an experiment zone allows them to mix measures in their own way, getting a feel for what it’s like to compose music. Students work at their own pace, ensuring that they are all able to accomplish meaningful learning objectives, regardless of their level of skill.

A major part of the Engage awards is the team with whom awardees work to make their project a reality. This team includes a project manager, designers, developers, and evaluators. Henke says working with her team was “a marvelous experience” and that the outcome was “absolutely a team effort.” With more ideas for games than time and budget constraints would allow, the team prioritized based on learning objectives and user feedback.

The evaluators on the Engage teams take the learning from all the projects and turn it into cross-disciplinary methods of good practice. This compilation of the experiences of a dozen Engage awardees analyzes what worked in each experience and shares the information with the UW System, ensuring the impact of Engage reaches across campuses and the state.

Dan LaValley, a project manager and instructional designer on the team, says that learning objectives determined the game design. For example, a famous composer presents the information for the game and their biography is woven in. Students learn about the composers’: lives and start to see them as relatable people, which makes students want to learn more.

Understanding what makes students want to learn more came from extensive user testing. Watching users play the games was key; the team noticed right away which games were fun for participants and which games felt like work.

“Play and exploration is inherently educational,” says David Gagnon, Instructional Designer with Engage. “We wanted students to genuinely enjoy this curriculum as a playful space. Unfortunately, some curriculum units don’t work that well as games. That was our challenge.”

One measure of Music Games’ success is the increased time on task or the amount of time students dedicate to ear training outside of the classroom. Henke says that she doesn’t have to manage that learning much at all, the students enjoy the games enough to seek them out without prompting.

Feedback from students corroborates the success. They report enjoying the games, especially when they can work in pairs. Surprisingly, one of the development team’s first eureka moments came while observing users testing the games in pair. LaValley says “watching them verbalize what they want to do and justify it to each other,” provided the developers clues about what was working in the game. It also helps the student solidify their learning through teaching their partners.

After the success of Melody Mixer, Henke applied for another grant to create a second set of games called Harmony Helper. Then Henke went on to get even more funding from outside sources to fund the creation of the third game, Counterpoint Constructor, and is currently putting together a proposal for a fourth game and to build an authoring tool for instructors to build their own content into her games. If funded, the authoring tool would be developed with the support of Engage and Division of Continuing Studies.

The story of Music Games exemplifies how the Engage awards can take the ideas of instructors, give them to a team to explore and evaluate ideas, and ultimately create activities that students seek out for learning outside of the classroom.