The Computer as an Assessment Tool

in the Band Room

by James Frankel


As music educators, we are constantly faced with the problem of how to best assess a studentŐs musical learning, especially when dealing with the performance aspects of music.  As an instrumental music teacher, I have found that the lack of an effective assessment tool poses a potential problem when it comes to communicating to a student, and their parents, how they are doing.  For example, in my school, instrumental music students do not receive a grade for their work. 

            When asked to create some criteria to best assess a studentŐs work, there are some difficult questions that need to be answered first.  How can one compare the work of a student who receives private instruction in addition to their weekly group lessons with the work of a student who just has group instruction, and is not quite as skilled?  What criteria does one use to properly evaluate every studentŐs work in the band, from the first flute to the triangle player?  How can one keep an accurate record of a studentŐs progress so that they can see and hear how far they have come?  Is a report card grade with a few lines for comments the best way to evaluate a studentŐs work?

            One form of evaluation that takes each of these problems in to account is portfolio assessment. 


Portfolio Assessment:


There have been numerous articles written over the past few years that deal with the benefits portfolio assessment in the music classroom.  When compared with traditional assessment techniques (standardized testing), and the inherent problems that occur with effectively evaluating student performances with multiple-choice questions, portfolio assessment makes perfect sense. After all, students learn more from seeing and hearing their growth, rather than seeing a number or letter.  One other important aspect of an effective portfolio is that it should be filled with examples that reflect a students Ňtypical workÓ and their Ňbest workÓ.  (Goolsby p.40)   This in turn provides both student and teacher with a clear picture of their progress.

            But how does one go about building portfolios for  instrumental music students?  Imagine filling another file cabinet with folders full of student work and cassette tapes.  Surely there must be a better way of maintaining these records.  There is.


The Computer Portfolio:


Many music classrooms have one computer that often serves as a tool for the teacher to keep records, plan lessons, write important letters to parents and print out music for their students.  It is often difficult to find ways to use the computer effectively in the middle of an instrumental music lesson, especially with a concert looming on the horizon.

            If there is one thing that a computer is really good at, it is record keeping.  Combining this feature with the idea of portfolio assessment provides an exciting alternative to traditional assessment, and makes creating student portfolios a relatively painless task.   In order to create student portfolios using a computer, one will need:


Computer (Mac or PC) at least 250MB of ROM and 8MB of RA.  The more students you have, the more memory you will need. 


 (Many computers come equipped with them built in)

Software.  Word processing (Microsoft Word, Claris Works), photo viewing capabilities (Photoshop, JPEG View), notational and sequencing (Finale, Overture), multi-media authoring software (Power Point, HyperStudio), and audio playback capabilities (Real Audio,  AudioPlayer).


Optional peripherals include:

Synthesizer w/MIDI

Digital Camera



            Once you have all of this equipment, creating student portfolios is quite simple.  Although the initial set-up of each studentŐs portfolio and the development of criteria to be assessed can be time consuming, adding to it is not.



Creating Student



During the first week of instrumental lessons, create a student folder for each student enrolled in your class.  This is as simple as creating a new folder for each student and putting their name on it.  These folders can then be sorted into larger folders and grouped according to instrument and grade level.   For example:


*Each student folder would then include various means of assessment.


Recording Performances


            Using a microphone and audio recording software, the teacher can record each student playing an exercise in their method book that they were assigned at the previous lesson.  This sound file could then be named (Method Book, p. 14, ex. 65) and stored in each student file.  The recording process would not need to take up any more time than if the teacher were to just hear each student play the exercise.  Each student gets one take.  Another opportunity for assessment could come some time later, when each student is asked to perform a given section of their concert band music (Corinthium, Trumpet 2, mm. 1 through 45).  This sound file would again be stored in each individual student portfolio.  A short recording of the concert band might also be included in each students file.  There are numerous possibilities for evaluation when recording a studentŐs performance (tone quality, technique, intonation, scales,  etc.) and these opportunities can be made up of the criteria that the teacher creates in order for a student to receive an A, B, C, D or F.


Critiquing  Performances


            Another opportunity for assessment can come immediately after a concert or performance.  In the week directly following a concert, the teacher can bring each lesson group to the computer lab and have the students evaluate their performance with the band, and the bandŐs performance as a whole.  The students could create their own criteria for the evaluation, or the teacher can create them for the students.  These evaluations in turn could be saved in to their portfolios.  Students and teachers will find it very interesting to come back to an evaluation years later, and see how the performance was perceived.


Improvisation Skills


            There are many other aspects of a students performance on their instrument that can be recorded using the computer.  Improvisation is an important part of music learning, and is one of those difficult aspects of music to evaluate and pin a letter grade on.  Using the computer, a student could improvise a melody on their instrument over a blues progression and make a recording of it.  A student could make a number of recordings,  listen to them, and choose the one that best represents their improvising ability.  This sound recording would go into their file, and would serve as a record of progress for the student over the years.


Music Theory Skills


            Theory skills are the easiest to assess by traditional means.  A student either knows how to build a major triad, or they donŐt.  Here too, the computer can serve as a tool for the music educator. There are a number of music theory drill and practice software titles currently available.  One of these, Practica Musica offers assessment opportunities for the students.  Each student has their own record of progress through the sequence of theory skills presented.  These files can also be stored in each studentŐs portfolio.


Composition Skills


            In the National Standards, students are expected to be able to compose and arrange pieces given specified guidelines.  Here again is a wonderful opportunity to incorporate technology and portfolio assessment.  Using a synthesizer equipped with MIDI and a computer with some type of notational or sequencing software, a student has an unlimited array of sounds at their fingertips.  Students can compose and record their compositions using the computer and in turn save these files in to their portfolios.  If computers are not available for student composing, the students can write their compositions out by hand, and have the composition recorded by student performers.  Their manuscripts can be scanned in to the computer and saved in their portfolios, along with the recording.


Multi-Media Presentations


            After two or three years of adding to a  portfolio, a student could then be assigned a culminating project that would sum up their involvement in the music program.  Using a software program like Power Point or Hyper Studio, a student could present their work in an organized manner to show their progress over the years.  For example, the first page would include their picture at their first instrumental music lesson, along with recordings of the first exercises they were assigned.  The next page might include a recording of their first concert along with their written critique of the performance.  The third page might include a picture of a manuscript they wrote, along with a recording of it.  The presentation would include each one of the evaluation opportunities, and how they fit in to their musical experience. 

            After their final performance at your school, lesson time could be used to present their portfolios to each other, and might serve as entertainment as well.  Upon leaving the school, the student would take their portfolio with them on  disk, and leave you with some more hard drive space.



While computers are not the only way to keep student portfolios, they do offer some exciting possibilities.  Students could share their work with other students around the country via email and the internet.  Opportunities for critiquing other students work might provide some interesting learning situations for the students. Teachers could keep the portfolios of exceptional students to show other students in years to come.

            The notion of creating student portfolios for each of your students might sound like a daunting task, but surprisingly, it does not take that much time.  You can create a student folder with the click of a button, and name it with another.  Students would add to their portfolios on their own time or even during a lesson.  The only really time consuming task is designing the criteria to be included in the portfolio, and coming up with opportunities for the students to be evaluated.   The results of your efforts will surely make the time spent worthwhile.





Goolsby, T. (1995). Portfolio Assessment for Better Evaluation.  Music Educators Journal, (82)3,  39-44.


Cope, C. (1996). Steps Toward Effective Assessment. Music Educators Journal, (83)1, 39-42.


Rudolph, T.(1996). Teaching Music with Technology, GIA Publications, Chicago.


Williams, D. & Webster, P. (1996). Experiencing Music Technology, Schirmer Books, New York.


Lehman, P. (1997). Assessment & Grading. Teaching Music, (5)3,  58-59.