Student Engagement Tip: Give Each Lesson its Own Theme Song

The challenge of engaging students in a large, introductory political science course, motivated Christopher Soper [article referenced below] to start exploring whether music might help him better connect students and course content. He now opens every class session with a song, and selecting those songs is part of an extra-credit assignment in the course.

The assignment works like this: students recommend songs, given the topics designated for coverage each day in class. They nominate the song and write a short paper explaining why and how the song relates to the topic for the day. Soper reviews the nominations and selects a song, with the student who nominated the song getting a small number of bonus points. For protection on the legal front, Soper asks students not to download the song. Once he selects the song, Soper pays for the download, which he plays as class opens. The lyrics to the song are projected via a PowerPoint slide so that students can follow the words.

The article contains lots of examples of songs students have nominated and Soper has selected. For example, the course begins with a session on the American Revolution and one of the favorite selections is the Beatles’ song “Revolution.” In the lyrics John Lennon expresses some ambivalence about revolutions. Soper explores with students where that ambivalence comes from and whether any previous revolutionary leaders might have experienced the same feelings. The article includes a number of quotations from students illustrating how the search for songs has made them aware of political science issues they would likely ignore otherwise.

Soper does admit the strategy has costs. Some are those messages it may convey about Soper as a teacher. “Starting class with a recognizable and catchy rock song can establish me in the students’ minds as a glorified talk show host—a sort of political science Oprah Winfrey—who will go to any lengths to keep them engaged with the material.” (p. 366) It’s also a fairly time-consuming endeavor—with nominations to read, a selection to make, the music to download, and the lyrics to acquire. Soper does use some of the same songs each semester, but he likes to let students in the current class make the nominations. This allows selection of songs that have relevance to current events and issues.

Despite the costs associated with using the strategy, Soper lists an impressive array of benefits accrued by it. They start with how the music enables students to connect with political science in ways that are meaningful. It’s also a strategy that adds some energy to the beginning of class. He writes, “It is no accident that music is ubiquitous at sporting events, because it invigorates the crowd and prepares them to participate in the game. Education is not a game, of course, but there is nothing wrong with borrowing a strategy from the sporting world and increasing the students’ initial engagement with a political science class.” (p. 366) He notes as well that the assignment is hugely popular with students. It generates more positive comments on his student ratings than any other aspect of the course.

Is the message here that every teacher should start class with music? No, but using music illustrates the kind of creative approach teachers need when students are passive and not particularly motivated about course content.

Reference: Soper, C. (2010). Rock and roll will never die: Using music to engage students in the study of political science. Political Science & Politics: PS, April.

Excerpted “Music in Political Science.” The Teaching Professor, 24.7 (2010): 4.