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Central Washington University

CWU Music Improves Student Experience with In-Person Instruction

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Two groups of 29 CWU string musicians have been meeting about once a week this fall in the McIntyre Music Building.


Most Central Washington University students haven’t been able to experience in-person learning since campus closed last spring due to COVID-19 safety concerns. But that doesn’t mean no one has.

The CWU Music Department is one of only a few departments offering in-person classes this fall, and despite some initial concerns, the professors say the first six weeks have gone surprisingly well. Most importantly, their students have adjusted quickly to the physically distanced format.

“I thought we were going to have problems with the logistics of the practice rooms, because normally, they are full from morning until night,” said professor Jeff Snedeker, who teaches small groups of brass musicians multiple times per week inside the McIntyre Music Building.

“But the students have learned that only they have control over their own circumstances, so they have been practicing at home — a lot. So far, everything seems to be working out well.” 

Snedeker’s colleague, Nik Caoile, also has been doing some in-person instruction this fall, working with nearly 60 string musicians from the CWU orchestra. He polled his students over the summer about their desire to return to in-person learning, and their response was overwhelmingly in favor.

“My plan was to go online again, like we did in the spring,” said Caoile, the director of orchestras. "All but five of my students said they wanted to go in-person, so I changed gears and figured out a way to spread everyone out. I measured the stage and found that we could accommodate up to 40 students with a six-foot safety precaution. I divided them into two groups of 29, and we agreed to meet 10 times each this quarter instead of 30, which has been nice.”

Caoile said many of his students have shown improved focus this quarter, and most of them are excelling under the new parameters.

“Now, every rehearsal is more precious,” he said. “They have more time to practice in between meetings, and it feels like the learning curve is going a little faster.”

Both professors said last spring’s unanticipated switch to remote learning caused some students to feel disconnected. But once the students realized that they could still receive the elite musical instruction CWU is known for, they slowly bought in. Snedeker said most students chose to return this fall, and they are making the most of the situation. 

“Education is what you make of it, not necessarily what’s given to you,” he said, adding that most of the incoming freshmen also stayed enrolled. “The logistics have forced our students to hold themselves more accountable, and one thing they have learned is that it’s what they make of their circumstances. I’m proud of them because they really seem to have embraced that.” 

Caoile echoed those sentiments, saying that the CWU music faculty has continued to meet — if not surpass — their own high expectations through all of the adversity of the past seven months. That has not been lost on the students.

“The student response this quarter has been very positive, even though the in-person opportunities have been reduced,” he said. “What we’ve found is that they just want to be together and play music. Most of them are happy they get to do that again.”



Online Learning Still the Norm

While some CWU music majors have been able to enjoy the benefits of in-person instruction, most of them have been attending virtual classes like everyone else.

Associate professor Mark Samples is teaching three online-only courses — music history for majors, a symphonic literature class for graduates and upper-division majors, and a general education course on the history of jazz. He learned a lot by teaching online last spring, and that experience prepared him well for the current environment.

“I’m committed to providing a really good asynchronous experience, and I feel like I’m getting better at it all the time,” Samples said, referring to the teaching method where students can access lectures whenever they are free, instead of having to be online at a specific time. 

While the asynchronous approach has been going well for Samples and his colleagues, he admits there are limitations. The main drawback is that students don’t get to experience the regular social interactions that make higher education so special.

This fall, he has been scheduling and managing Zoom meetings and recordings directly in Canvas — a feature that wasn’t available in the spring. Those real-time interactions once a week have created more of a community feel for Samples and his pupils. 

“Students really miss being around each other, so the Zoom meetings do help,” he said. “I feel like this is a helpful compromise because I can offer the asynchronous approach but also have more opportunities to connect.”

The primary challenge Samples has seen with the virtual format is that students’ organizational skills are being tested more than ever before. They no longer see their professors and classmates around the music building, which has created a disconnect for some.

“It’s harder to feel as present in an online situation,” he said. “Those built-in opportunities they used to have for help aren’t as frequent, and now, students have to be more proactive when they have a question.”



Finding the Positives

Despite coping with seemingly endless challenges this year, the CWU music faculty knows it has done well by its students in both the remote and in-person modalities.

While the instructors may no longer teach classes virtually once the pandemic subsides, they expect to incorporate their newfound knowledge into future course-planning.

“Sometimes, we are loath to admit that we should be integrating new platforms into our curriculum,” Caoile said. “But with the average age of students getting older and more people learning from home every year, we’re still going to use all of this technology. Many of the things we have been forced to learn — like interacting on Zoom — will definitely carry over when we get back.”

Snedeker, if given the choice, would prefer to be with his students every day. But there are a number of aspects about virtual learning that he believes will help him provide a better educational experience. Combining in-person instruction with video conferences and pre-recorded online content may be the wave of the future in higher education.

“Some of the things I learned grudgingly will definitely be back, because they work,” Snedeker said. “It doesn’t have to be one or the other.”

Whether teaching in-person or remotely, the CWU Music Department continues to provide its students with some of the best instructional opportunities in the Northwest. Samples said he is proud to be associated with such an elite team of educators.

“The theme throughout this department is that our faculty truly cares about the development of these young musicians,” he said. “We’re always looking for ways to help our students become rich, fulfilled, artistic musicians who are well-prepared to go out in their communities and thrive as professionals.”

Media contact: David Leder, Department of Public Affairs, David.Leder@cwu.edu, 509-963-1518.

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