Functional Language & Literacy in Practice: A Higher Education Music Context

Michael Galeazzi, Monash University, Victoria

Anthony Shanno n, Australian Institute of  Music,  New  South  Wales Zofia Krawczyk‐Bernotas, Australian Institute of Music, New South Wales


Currently most Higher Education (HE) and Vocational Education and Training (VET) courses  do not specifically address functional literacy skills. A student could potentially pass the course, yet still be functionally illiterate. This paper is an attempt to consider what language and litera

1. Structure and purpose

The purpose of this paper is to broaden an understanding of literacy in music education beyond notions of music notation and musicianship [17, 2]. Here music literacy is aligned to more  recent ideas of ‘decision making in musical practice and rehearsals’ [14]. First, a functional literacy context is introduced to consider the concerns regarding literacy standards in Australian higher education. Second, literacy is unpacked within a higher music education case study. In doing so attention is drawn to:

  • the wide range of literacy skills that are associated with music performance;
  • the need to identify and address these skills in music education;
  • and the importance of these (non musical) literacy skills to life long learning and career

Third, the discussion and comments sections examine the important relationship between cognitive development, course structure and literacy outcomes (as a graduate attribute).


The term ‘functional literacy’ can be traced back to 1956 [8]. It was later embedded in music education [4], though here we are suggesting its place in the total undergraduate music experience as part of the scholarship of integration [6]. Current media claims about low levels of literacy and numeracy, such as university graduates being unable to read the label on a medicine bottle [5], may be hard to swallow, but there are deeper issues at stake. Language, Literacy and Numeracy (LLN) are complex notions that pervade all levels of education from primary school to doctoral theses. They are complicated by what we mean by them, how we manage them, and how we measure them (or the lack of them).

The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), the Commonwealth regulator of higher education in Australia, rightly expects that LLN issues be addressed, though it rightly too does not try to define them too narrowly. This paper is an attempt to consider what they might mean in practice.

3. Examples of functional ‘illiteracy’

It is easy for academics to dismiss LLN as something that applies to the primary school or tertiary pathway colleges, but it is the background icing on the cake in mentoring young professionals. There are many examples of functional illiteracy, such as

  • the research  degree  candidate  whose  literature  review  is  a  superficial  skim  across  a chronological narrative with no critical depth to connect deep issues,
  • the music students who cannot appreciate the historical influences on musical fashions,
  • the engineering students who cannot appreciate the conceptual framework which mathematics contributes to their engineering insights,
  • the academic who is happily ignorant of the higher education regulatory framework [4,6].

4. Information Literacy

According to the Australian and New Zealand Institute for Information Literacy (ANZIIL) standards [7] an information literate person:

  1. recognises the need  for  information  literacy  and  determines  the  nature  and  extent  of  the information needed,
  2. finds needed information effectively and efficiently,
  • critically evaluates information and the information seeking process,
  1. manages information collected or generated,
  2. applies prior and new information to construct new concepts or create new understandings,
  3. uses information with understanding and acknowledges cultural, ethical, economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information

The NCVER report [19] utilises the ANZIIL standards to investigate information literacy (IL) challenges in both the Vocational Education and Training (VET) and Higher Education (HE) sectors in order to better understand the articulating student experience (from VET to HE), and inform the proposed transitional framework. Participants were current VET diploma students and current HE students. Three key findings featured in the NCVER report:

  1. There were common information literacy challenges experienced by both current VET students and current HE
  2. Current HE students reported a shift in expectations related to the types of sources utilised and the referencing
  3. Students from both VET and HE commented on the need for collaboration between VET and HE providers in order to make the transition

Common challenges were experienced by both VET and HE students when completing assessment tasks and relate to ANZIIL standards I, v and vi. In context, this translates to students experiencing challenges understanding the assessment task, bringing together and preparing assessment and adhering to the required writing and referencing styles. Important here is that these aspects are challenging throughout VET, but there is also an increase in expectations when articulating to HE. These aspects of information literacy need  consideration regardless of the tertiary education sector  (ELICOS, VET  or HE), as the challenges experienced will only be magnified if the issues are ignored.

Having made the transition to HE from secondary education, there are notable shifts in expectations around the types of sources utilised and the formal referencing style. For instance, HE staff need to build on existing search strategies and ensure transparency in the preference for scholarly peer‐reviewed sources.

5. Case Study – Australian Institute of Music (AIM) Contemporary Performance Unit 6 Masterclass

A notion of ‘literacy’ for music students transcends its traditional understanding as interpreting music from a recording or score. The contemporary model  of a vertically integrated musician in today’s technology driven industry demands functionality and higher order thinking to manage a broad portfolio of potential income streams. As  well as being competent on his  or her  own instrument, a career musician must negotiate teaching, performance, composition, recording, production and distribution streams to ensure that a sustainable career can be maintained [11]. The laptop computer has not only usurped the guitar as a ‘primary instrument for expression’ [13], but also has afforded the musician access to music creation, production and distribution avenues. ‘Illiteracy’ in this context could be a career‐ending trait. A degree course focused upon music performance may or may  not be able to address these wider issues of  managing a diverse music industry portfolio through the offering of specialist electives from different departments (arts management, audio, production etc.), but planning within unit structures to produce outcomes that develop higher order thinking will help students to manage artistic, aesthetic, and industry aspects of their careers.

The Bachelor of Music (Contemporary) program at the Australian Institute of Music is in a position where both vertical integration (within subject/department) and horizontal integration (across subjects and departments) can support literacy objectives that contribute to lifelong learning and industry relevance. The cross pollination of elective choices in stages 3‐6 delivered by the Entertainment and Arts Management, Classical, Composition and Music Production, and Audio Engineering departments [1] encourage diversity in the knowledge base of graduates.

To address literacy issues that surround the field of music performance the Contemporary Department has moulded its Performance Studies stream upon a revised notion of Bloom’s Taxonomy where ‘Creativity’ usurps ‘Evaluation’ as ‘the highest level of cognitive complexity’ [9]. Utilising Bloom’s revised language to scaffold the learning outcomes in the six units of Performance Studies sets up an expectation of cognitive development when learning to perform the diverse styles of music repertoire that is unpacked under the term ‘contemporary’ [3].

The latter stage (Units 5 and 6) learning outcomes related to evaluation, synthesis and creativity bear a direct relationship to functional literacy for the contemporary performer ‐ even when narrowing the musician’s skill set to just performance concerns. Decades of cross‐stylistic music and performance convention come  into  play when  deciding  how  to  interpret  standard  repertoire,  especially  during  performance where in the moment decisions are made due to context (with variables including skill set of other players, technological constraints of venue, purpose of performance, size of ensemble, aesthetic of the musical director, etc.). Unpacking the idea of ‘create’ as a process that ‘is composed of three discrete areas: generate, plan, and produce’ [9] is of paramount importance to the performance student navigating their craft both pre, during and post event.

Final  semester  performance  majors  registered  in  the  P2IM6  Major  Study  6  unit  are  tasked  with presenting a 40‐minute recital at the end of their semester of study, and it is here where the summation of their undergraduate learning (and performance literacy within and around the music performance event)  is  engaged  to  produce  their  recital  performance.  All  aesthetic,  production,  personnel  and rehearsal decisions are made by the student being assessed for the event (in consultation with their instrumental  teacher),  and  the  Masterclass  component  of  this  final  Instrumental  Major  unit  is specifically designed to support the recitalist in the making of these decisions (the revised taxonomy’s notion of  ‘create ‐   plan, generate, produce’ ‐   has  particular resonance   to this summative event). Replacing  the  traditional  Masterclass  (where  students  are  grouped  by  instrument  and  investigate instrument specific concerns), with a seminar examining the processes and theoretical background behind  the  student’s  decision‐making  process2   is  an  opportunity  to  support  and  unpack  literacy objectives that relate directly to the performance environment.

In the Masterclass a ‘Reflective Portfolio Presentation’ is one of two assessment events in the unit (the other is the recital performance). The presentation is employed as a tool to evaluate how students have synthesised the information discussed in the Masterclass to their own recital preparation. In a reflective context Zwozdiak‐Meyers (2012) posits the function of the ‘reflective portfolio’ to ‘record evidence of your professional growth and development’ [22]. Importantly

“‘The portfolio also provides a vehicle through which you can articulate  and give voice  to your personal philosophy and thoughts about factors that shape and influence teaching and learning” [22].

Although this reflective practice event occurs every semester (in the Masterclass) for  performance majors, the outcome of a recital performance in semester 6 demands a greater level of critical thinking from the student, and more consideration by the department.

Using reflective practice as an assessment task can be problematic. Grading students on their thoughts can both bias their comments (towards pleasing the tutor) and encourage superficial/misleading (non personal) responses [10]. But framing the event to enable performance majors to present their reflection (a familiar performance format), on a specific non‐personal task (musical preparation), in a peer‐supporting environment (Masterclass), provides a platform conducive to informed responses (and outcomes) from participants [10]. Moreover, if the reflection is not graded then students are more inclined not to ‘put in the work’ [15], thus the Institute loses an opportunity to identify areas to support both student literacy and program improvement.

The Masterclass presentation allows students to focus upon whatever aspect of their recital preparation was problematic. In front of a panel of three assessors – the same circumstance as their recital performance – they are afforded the opportunity to unfold their process in dealing with a recital music production issue, relate it back to themes discussed in the Masterclass, and perform the segment of music to evidence the aspect or garner feedback to help resolve the issue. The music performance is ancillary and non‐assessed; it is the process of synthesis, reflection and critical thinking – literacy in this performance context ‐ that is of importance. ‘Clarity of objectives assists students to move beyond descriptive accounts of their experiences’ [10], and thus specific questions have been designed to direct students to reflect upon their processes.

Questions channelling students to produce this type of ‘narrative reflection’ is a strategy employed in the nursing profession, a similar context where specificity in episode necessitates a personalised and individual approach and response.

Narrative reflection allows students to go well beyond a detailed description of an episode of their practice, to an in‐depth analysis of, and reflection on, the meaning of the episode. The power of narrative reflection is its potential to enhance student’s ability to critique and learn from practice, develop clinical competence, and articulate, appreciate and value their practice [12].

When quarantining reflective practice to a specific occurrence within a student’s recital preparation analysis and reflection serves to not only promote best practice, but also to gauge (in a qualitative sense) how the student is coping with the ancillary responsibilities that come with the ownership of the recital performance. It can almost serve as a circuit breaker in the recital preparation semester, encouraging students to stop at least once to critically assess process before the event. The following figure illustrates how the presentation functions within in the context of the unit’s overall (reflective) learning cycle (adapted from [12])

Positioning literacy outcomes within the Masterclass unit can sometimes seem ancillary to the student whose primary concern is to put on a good performance. Even though the concepts discussed in the Masterclass become more apparent the further the class progresses through the semester (here real time organisational and aesthetic issues surface during the rehearsal period), on occasion students put a low priority on the presentation event.

Table 2. Statistical summary of the comparisons of the first (Reflective Portfolio Presentation) and second (Recital Performance) assessment results in the unit P2IM6. ‘R’ represents the level of correlation between two assessment events (negativity denotes being good at one event you will be worse at the other) positive that there is a tendency for them to be related together. ‘+/‐’ represents the number of people above the mean of one event and below the mean of the other but doesn’t give the extent of the difference (almost qualitative value because it doesn’t look at size).


Table 2 is a statistical summary of the comparisons of the first (Reflective Portfolio Presentation) and second (Recital Performance) assessment results in the unit P2IM6 at the Sydney campus of AIM in Trimesters 1,2 and 3 in 2015, and the Melbourne campus in Trimester 3. As expected with such small numbers in each cohort the Pearson correlation coefficients have no statistical significance. However, their very small values, and three of the negative signs, suggest that a comparison be made within each cohort between the number of students whose scores had changed from above to below  (or  the reverse) the arithmetic mean in each of the two assessments (+/‐ in the table). That around half of the students display this inconsistency merits further analysis into its meaning.

This latter measure could be further refined to exclude comparisons when the scores are within one standard deviation of the arithmetic mean. If we do this with results for SYDT1 we still find an inconsistency between the two assessments of around 40 per cent. If we consider the first assessment as being more about functional literacy and the second assessment as more about performance, then the current weightings of 20% and 80% respectively may need to be reconsidered in the light of the learning outcomes (if functional literacy is more important than performance). We are not talking about failing, but about relative achievements on the two measures.

Importantly, the inconsistency between student scores in the two events (especially where a below mean score changed to an above mean score) may denote a lack of student engagement with the Reflective Portfolio Presentation and issues of literacy associated with event organisation and communication (musical and non‐musical). This can put the students at risk ‐ the presentation is not only useful as a reflective exercise to improve their own practice, but also worth 20% of their final mark. Reflective practice is a well documented tool for learning and professional development [12, 13, 14, 15], and in an effort to ascertain better ways to engage the  student body in this process  a post unit questionnaire was employed to ascertain the student perspective.

4. Questionnaire Design and Methodology

4.1 Objective

The purpose of the questionnaire is to gauge student understanding regarding the benefits of the Reflective Portfolio Presentation to both the recital event and their own professional practice. In doing so the aim is to acknowledge the student perspective and inform the improvement of literacy, unit and course outcomes.

4.2 Method

A questionnaire utilising short answer questions was employed as a data‐gathering tool. Since this inductive research is targeting a small group (two classes with students totalling 43) to gather ‘varied responses’ and ‘richness of information’ rather than ‘statistical significance’, the short answer questionnaire is deemed most appropriate [14 p 187]. This was delivered online via Survey Monkey ™ after the presentation schedule was completed – an invitation was sent via email. Here students were asked a small number of questions regarding their experience and perspective as it related to the Reflective Portfolio Presentation event, its preparation, and its relationship to the recital performance.

The title page featured AIM’s standard Ethical Research Guidelines and Research Participant Consent Form (see appendix) to indicate ‘click through’ consent. Here student anonymity is prioritised to ensure unbiased opinion is obtained. Two tasks and two questions were presented with a comment box attached to elicit open‐ended written feedback from students.

All questions were listed on one page to indicate that the questionnaire won’t be time consuming, short answers are appropriate (although the dialogue box can be expanded to accommodate longer responses), and to encourage students to answer all questions [21]. The Questions are as follows:

  1. Please list the aspects of the Reflective Portfolio Presentation (if any) that were helpful to your recital
  2. Please list the aspects of the Reflective Portfolio presentation (if any) that had a negative impact upon your recital
  3. Do you think the reflective skills used in your Reflective Portfolio Presentation are applicable to your musical practice outside AIM? If so, could you describe a situation where you have – or would – apply these skills?
  4. What do you think the term ‘literacy’ means in the context of your recital preparation and performance?

4.3 Results

There were 11 responses from the 43 students (compiled in Appendix ii). Points of note were as follows.

With respect to the positive aspects of the Reflective Portfolio Presentation (Q1) a number of students conflated the presentation event with the Masterclass program as a whole (4/11) articulating positives from the lecture series rather than the event itself, and another four responses focused primarily on the music aspects of the performance section rather than the reflective practice. The overarching negative theme regarding the presentation event (Q2) was equity in timetabling (4/11), and how this exasperated issues of time and stress management when preparing for the recital performance. Two respondents did not agree with their grade, and three commented that there were no negative impacts. Nine respondents agreed that the reflective practice skills were applicable to music practice outside of the classroom (Q3), but only one respondent attempted to try and link ‘literacy’ to the recital preparation and performance (Q4).

4.4 Discussion

There were two key responses that highlight how issues surrounding literacy in the recital performance context may need greater focus.

  • Q1 (regarding if the presentation was helpful to the recital performance)

‘To be honest, not a whole lot. I almost viewed the two as separate things with not much relation.’

  • Q3 (regarding the applicability of reflective skills to professional practice)

‘I had trouble trying to properly communicate what I was doing, without sounding like I was saying ‘Well I just did it’.’

The above statements accord well with the minor statistical analysis presented from previous classes (Table 2). The students generally segregated the two events, distancing skill in reflective practice from success in the performance event. Reinforcing this are comments relating to the problem of synchronising assessment of the two parts (Reflective Portfolio Assessment and Recital Performance). This can always be an issue where two related but different skills are put together in the one unit ‐   sometimes because of credit point balances, but mainly because they are actually related in a complementary way as a couple of the respondents realised. These (very minimal) results point towards a schism between excelling in performance and understanding why. While performing well is obviously a prerequisite for developing a performance career, understanding the field and the processes that construct performance (music, production and industry) is paramount to a sustained career.  Here literacy issues and reflective practice come to the fore when preparing students for life long learning in their chosen artistic pathway. To bridge this gap more emphasis may need to be placed upon the reflective practice component of previous Masterclass units to unpack the utility of such practice to meaningful music performance outcomes.

5. Concluding Comments

Currently most HE and VET courses do not specifically address functional literacy skills. A student could potentially pass the course, yet still be functionally illiterate. A solution would be to build functional literacy processes into the learning outcomes of the course and then assess them as appropriate in each unit of study. In this way, functionally illiterate students would not pass until they have mastered the necessary skills.

AIM has created a Reflective Portfolio task in an effort to address the issue of functional literacy. It is the hope of the teachers and assessors that this assignment will not only help students achieve the learning outcomes of the course (both the educational and functional literacy outcomes), but that it will also help the educators get an idea of how the students are experiencing the course, and therefore continue to improve not only this course but also all of AIM’s courses.

Table 3 (below) suggests the gradual development of a potential course in relation to cognitive processes within an undergraduate degree in which the concurrent development of information literacy is a distinguishing attribute of the graduates.

An alternative perspective is that it is about creating opportunities for these skills to develop, and it remains a question as to where such opportunities could exist within current regimes. Regardless, the aim is to support content understanding by focusing on the nature and practices of academic reading and writing. Smaller higher education providers may have an advantage in this respect. A study by Potter [16] from Avondale College of Higher Education infers that having fewer students with similar educational backgrounds results in academic success not available to those lost in the mix of larger providers.

The issues for consideration are not the methodology or scope of the report in itself but rather the extent to which the findings need to be addressed. For instance:

  • What are our distinctive strengths in fostering functional information literacy & numeracy? And how do we know?
  • What are the identifiable weaknesses of our students in functional LLN? And how do we know?
  • What could we be doing to remedy these weaknesses or gaps?
  • What are the specific plans to do so without overburdening those students who are probably least able to cope with any extra load?
  • How can we inject one of each of the six ANZIIL levels as a backdrop to assessment procedures in each of the six semesters of a three year degree so that the engagement of staff and students is sustained throughout the undergraduate curriculum?


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Appendix i - Major Study 6 Extended Unity Outline detailing the Masterclass lecture series.


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