This past weekend I attended the annual meeting of the Northwest Biology Instructors’ Organization (NWBIO), hosted with aplomb by Rik Smith and his colleagues at Columbia Basin College in Pasco. I hadn’t been to this meeting since 2004, so it was great to reconnect with so many enthusiastic and inventive teachers.
Naturally, I talked about science-based music at the conference. In my workshop (“Teaching Biology With Music: Online Tools and Active-Learning Strategies”), I showed data from our ongoing science outreach study, in which outreach event participants take a short quiz before and after watching a science-based music video. Our data so far show statistically significant improvements in the quiz scores after watching the videos.
One point that arose right away was that we do not have a no-music control group, so we can’t tell whether music is superior, equivalent, or inferior to other (non-musical) interventions. Indeed, this is a limitation of the study. Since the outreach events are supposed to be fun for the participants, we’ve chosen NOT to subject half of them to a non-musical, possibly boring alternative to a music video.
Workshop attendees also raised a second, subtler concern. Since the same quizzes are used before and after the video, it was suggested that the improvement we’re seeing is attributable to the pre-video quiz focusing participants’ attention on certain content, rather than to the music video per se.
It’s true that the pre-video quiz affects the way people watch the video. But I see the pre-video quiz as a disclosure of learning goals — i.e., “here are the key items I want you to concentrate on.” The declaration of these learning goals does not guarantee that the students will actually achieve them! Thus I contend that the improvements we’re seeing, while not a big surprise, are not a foregone conclusion either. In the bustling, chaotic environment of a science outreach event, where students’ grades are not at stake, the fact that they improve (on average) is noteworthy, I think.
In any case, it was great to be able to share the data with a skeptical audience and to discuss what the study can and cannot show. The discussion will help me anticipate reviewers’ likely questions when I write up the study for a journal. Thanks, NWBIO!