This week’s post is part 3 of the series inspired by the panel I hosted with UCI coaches/artists on April 20, 2022 (watch the panel recording here). In this post, I would like to focus on an interesting idea that a coach shared as a lesson they learned from an orchestra conductor. The concept focuses on three phases, or levels, that an orchestra experiences: practice, rehearsal, and performance. While the exact name for each level varies depending on the application, the basic idea nicely categorizes the different phases of the learning process and specifies the expected outcome.

As the conductor described it, the practice phase for his musicians is basically the work they do on their own. Though this might involve working with one or two other people, it is not time spent working with the entire orchestra. It is a time for each musician to focus on core musical skills and abilities (scales, exercises, etc.) and their specific part of the pieces that the orchestra is planning to perform.

The rehearsal phase is when the entire orchestra comes together to work on the pieces that will be performed. As with individual practice, there are many different activities going on during the rehearsal, and at times it may focus on a specific section of the orchestra or even a specific musician and how they are fitting into the overall performance. Eventually, one has the “dress rehearsal,” which is when the entire orchestra performs as one and runs through the entire piece as they would during the real performance.

Finally, there is the performance. This is what the previous phases of learning are aimed at. Practice and rehearsal are all designed to empower a successful performance.

Applying this concept to sports is interesting, and the reason the coach introduced this framework was because the conductor had identified the coach’s practice sessions as a combination of what the conductor thought of as practice and rehearsal. I remember experiencing this explicitly in the coach training I received. In training, We were taught to define a practice session around a concept and start with drills that worked on the individual skills relevant to the concept/goal. Then, we would build on this through a scrimmage or practice game that emphasized that concept. While this obviously works well and is a good design, it perhaps under-emphasizes the role of the individual training an athlete needs to do. 

Obviously, top athletes do train individually and have their own training programs. And for the top teams, there is some integration of individual practice and team practice. What the conductor’s framework did for the coach was make this connection even more explicit and helped him realize the importance of ensuring that athletes’ individual practice sessions connected to team practices to maximize the benefit to the entire team.

If we now transition to the classroom, attempting to apply this framework points out two interesting features of teaching. The most obvious issue is that it is unclear what performance refers to in the classroom! But, let’s hold this issue and ask what do practice and rehearsal look like in the traditional classroom?

For the most traditional courses, there are lectures that provide information and guidance to students and homework for students to do on their own (or in small groups with other students). If we think about this, we see that traditional instruction really focuses on what the conductor referred to as the practice stage, since the emphasis is on the student’s individual work. It seems as difficult to identify which aspects of the traditional classroom experience would constitute rehearsal as it is to identify what constitutes performance!

Thinking about this in terms of contemporary ideas around active learning, it seems to me that one of the goals of active learning could be defined as bringing a rehearsal element to the academic experience. If we think about the key elements of active learning, it calls for opportunities for students to do things in a context where real-time feedback is readily available, scaffolded activities that specifically prepare students for assessments, and opportunities for students to work together as a team. When you consider this, a course that employs active learning strategies looks very much like an orchestra rehearsal or practice for a sports team!

I want to point out that this model suggests that a key element of adding active learning to the classroom is to ensure that the right type of individual practice remains a key part of the course! It is the interaction between practice (individual learning and homework) and rehearsal (active learning activities in the classroom) that is essential for maximum learning. This just leaves the question of what is performance when it comes to the classroom?

At one level, the major assessments in a course are probably the best analogy for a performance. But I prefer to think of assessments as dress rehearsals and performance as what the students do once they graduate! Either way, this analogy reminds us of the need to look carefully at our philosophy regarding assessments.

I have already written a lot on assessments, tests, and grading, and how we should rethink these course elements. I will just reiterate here that this particular analogy challenges us to think about group exams and group assessments in new ways. Additionally, when considering this analogy, I was struck by the need to reconsider the concept of “teaching to the test.”

This practice has gotten a bad rap over the years. On one hand, this is probably deserved if the test in question is solely focused on factual memorization and students are basically given the facts they need to memorize for the test. However, when thinking about the connection between tests and performance, we realize that “teaching to the test” is a succinct description of our job! As instructors, we are supposed to set goals for our students, teach them how to achieve these goals, provide a learning environment in which they can reach these goals, and then assess them on whether or not they have done so! This is essentially a great description of “teaching to the test.”

I think where we get confused is when we focus on the idea of wanting students to be able to analyze a text or solve a problem (whatever is relevant to our field) that they have not seen before. I feel like there is a sense that this goal is in conflict with “teaching to the test.” However, I don’t think this is the case. By teaching students how to analyze a text or solve a problem and helping them develop the skills they need to perform these actions, we are teaching them how to deal with things that they have not seen before! As long as our instruction focuses on the actual process behind analysis or problem solving and not the specific texts or problems, we can still “teach to the test” in a way that serves our students.

This is just one interesting thought that I had when applying the framework of practice, rehearsal, and performance to the classroom. And I know that continuing to consider this analogy would lead to more compelling ideas. The main takeaway here is that shifting our perspective on teaching is a great way to generate new ideas on how we can create more positive classroom experiences and maximize student learning. 

The goal, not only of this post but this entire blog, is to encourage instructors to break out of traditional mindsets, assumptions, and practices and consider new ways to teach and design their courses. The opportunities are virtually limitless, and it is only our own creativity and innovation that limits us. If we as instructors expect our students to grow and evolve, we must hold ourselves to this same standard and push ourselves to keep developing as well.