Benjamin Bierman, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Music, Gets a Resounding Signal From His Students That His Online Curriculum Supports Their Success

Benjamin Bierman, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Music, Gets a Resounding Signal From His Students That His Online Curriculum Supports Their Success

Benjamin Bierman, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Music, Gets a Resounding Signal From His Students That His Online Curriculum Supports Their Success

When Benjamin Bierman, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Music and Chair of the Art & Music Department, saw his Fall 2020 student evaluation comments, he was particularly proud of what the students had to say. “Great professor! Course material was organized and Professor Bierman was enthusiastic about teaching. Truly enjoyed his class,” one student wrote on his evaluation. Another student wrote, “This teacher not only reached out to students who were falling behind to check in on them, but also helped clarify points that were difficult to understand.” Page after page of glowing reviews told Bierman one very critical thing, his students—even in a remote-learning environment—were connecting with him, the material, and the way the curriculum was presented.

“Seeing those comments made me feel successful and gratified,” says Bierman. “I felt happy for my students. I felt supported by the students, and I felt like they knew that I was concerned about supporting them.” Teaching American music, composition, and music technology remotely is no easy task, but after teaching at John Jay for over 11 years, and extensively teaching online classes throughout his career, Bierman had a few “tricks” up his proverbial sleeve. We sat down with him to better understand the secrets behind his remote-learning success.

“This teacher not only reached out to students who were falling behind to check in on them, but also helped clarify points that were difficult to understand.” —anonymous student in Benjamin Bierman’s remote-learning class

When we switched to a remote-learning environment last year, what were your biggest concerns?
I wasn’t really fazed by the transition because I was very comfortable with the modality, and I always liked the modality. If you can imagine teaching somebody how to arrange music in a strictly online format with no synchronous learning, that’s not an easy thing to do, but I knew that good learning was possible. What I was more concerned about was my students’ ability to adapt to the modality. A lot of those concerns centered around issues that our students might have poor access to technology and challenging life situations. That’s what prompted me to direct my focus toward organization. For me, that is the key to online learning: organization.

In your evaluations, so many of your students mentioned how organized you were. One student said you were “smooth and organized,” another suggested that all professors organize their assignments the way you did. Why was organization so essential to you?
To me, one of the most important elements for a successful learning environment is respect. We have a shared experience, and I’ve found through my years of teaching that having the students’ respect, and letting them know that you respect them, is the first thing you need to establish. That is where the organization comes in, especially with online learning. My way of respecting the students is to be organized. And we’re talking about students who might be dealing with a lot of factors, like work, family, children, siblings, and a lack of resources. So that organization becomes crucial.

When youre teaching remotely, you have to make sure that assignments are clear. What I have done is make a link and folder for each week, and each one looks exactly the same. I have a midterm and a final week which are different, but they are the same as each other. Every week, the assignment structure is exactly the same. The exact same day, at the exact same time. There is an open-book, untimed quiz every week. They can take the quiz twice. They can see what answers they got wrong the first time through. It’s not about fooling them. It’s about making sure that they read the material and are comfortable with that information. On the first day, all the quizzes are there for the entire semester. Some of them get all of the quizzes out of the way in the beginning. Almost all of them get perfect scores on them. The book is there. The information is there. I’m never interested in trapping students. I’m interested in success. If you take an exam, you have to do a good job on it. If you are writing a paper, you have to do a good job. You didnt do a good job on it, then do it again. What was wrong? I will tell you what was wrong. Now fix it.

“My way of respecting students is to be organized.” — Benjamin Bierman

After reading your students’ evaluations, it’s clear that there was a high level of engagement in your class. What do you attribute this to, especially in a remote-learning environment?
I’m teaching jazz and right now we’re listening to music from the 1920s and ’30s. That’s not easy for them. The recordings are poor quality and oftentimes, they’re like, “What’s this? Why am I listening to this?” My goal is to get them to be able to listen to music more fully and in a different way. I want them to hear details of the music and understand what is going on inside of it. How am I going to get them to do that with music that they are really unfamiliar with? Well, let’s talk about the music they are familiar with. Every week, they have to talk about the music that I assign. I assign two or three pieces for them to listen to and for them to discuss. But they are also always asked to bring a piece of music, of their own choosing, to the discussion. That means whatever question I’m asking has to be related to a choice of theirs. They can talk about their music much more easily than they can talk about the new music that I’m presenting, so the learning trajectory becomes much faster and the engagement becomes deeper. When I was teaching in person I didn’t do this, but even after the pandemic is behind us, I definitely want to incorporate this into my in-person teaching.

What are you learning from the music they bring to the class?
It’s great because we have a lot of diversity in the classroom. I have a student now who plays a Chinese plucked instrument and she presents videos from her region—not just from China, but a particular region, on a particular instrument, and she plays it. I have a lot of Latinx students bringing in Cumbia. I have played in Latin bands my whole career, and still do, but new things come up and they’re sharing those things with me. A student brought in a genre of Cumbia that is a sampling genre. I kept the discussion and I put it into my notes for my book when I am talking about sampling. Music from all over the world comes into this class. We are learning about each other as we’re learning about different music.

As a Department Chair who has clearly had some success with remote-learning, what advice would you give faculty members in your department and in any department?
This is a very sensitive time and my general advice is to keep things simple. In terms of your technology, keep it simple. Don’t feel you have to do fancy PowerPoint lectures with narration over an image. Do what you are comfortable doing. You have to think about what you are doing and what the main purpose of the class is. Keeping it simple within your own means is better for the students.

If your students need help, reach out to them. I call students on their phones if I don’t see them in class for a while. Then I offer help with organization or any difficulties that they’re having. Once a mother answered the phone and asked, “Is everything okay?” I said everything was fine, but I wanted to chat with her son about class. When he got on the phone, I told him that I was concerned that I hadn’t seen him in class. By reaching out and offering help, my students felt supported.

Last semester, by the end of the semester, my students were doing better than any students I’ve ever had in terms of writing about music, listening to music, and describing what they are hearing. Looking at the entire class level, the class average was about 25 percent better at least.

Listen to Benjamin Bierman, Associate Professor of Music, talk about student success in a remote-learning world, and hear him play the Blues.