Singing in science: Writing and recording student lyrics to express learning

Nelson, S., & Norton-Meier, L. (2009). Singing in science: Writing and recording student lyrics to express learning. Journal for Learning through the Arts, 5(1).

Abstract:

This qualitative case study examines an integrated arts project in which students in two grade levels write song lyrics to express learning in science. The project was an end-point following inquiry-based science units that covered the science of sound (fifth grade) and trees (kindergarten). Students collaborated in small groups, with their classroom teacher, and finally with a music teaching artist to craft lyrics to an original song about their science learning. The study is predicated on the idea that transmediation, a process where students translate their understanding from one mode to another, deepens the learning experience. Researchers framed the study around two questions: How does the process of writing lyrics in science affect learning? And what are the benefits of collaborative multi-modal learning? They conclude that when lyric writing is paired with science learning, students deepen their knowledge of science understanding while also sharing their accomplishments with their community through a live concert and a professional recording each student could take home.

Key Findings:

By asking students to translate learning in one mode (science) into another mode (lyrics), researchers found that:
  • Writing lyrics about science learning left a memory mark that helps students recall science content as well as experiencing the creative process.
  • Working with their peers and later a teaching artist exposed students to the process of collaboration in lyric composition, increasing learning engagement and providing an opportunity for self-expression.
  • Recording songs allowed students to share their learning with family and community.

Significance of the Findings:

The researchers maintain that content retention (memory mark) and understanding were high. They propose that because students feel deeply connected to the creative experience of writing lyrics and producing a song, the learning is tagged in their memories making it easier to retrieve the information. This finding contributes to growing evidence showing that arts integration can increase student engagement and content retention by placing learning in the context of something personally relevant to students. Students’ learning experience is further enhanced by working with a professional artist; in this case, students were taken out of school to a recording studio as the final phase to the project. The recording became a tangible piece of collaborative art/science work that students could share with their communities, taking pride in the work they created. Transmediation was used to great effect in this study. Students transformed their understanding of a science concept into lyrics. Such remodeling of knowledge – especially when it involves distilling language down to concise ideas – demonstrates a deep understanding of content while promoting lasting and positive memories.

Methodology:

Researchers studied the impact of lyric writing on learning and engagement at the end of science units in two kindergarten classes (trees) and two fifth grade classes (sound) in the same school district. Students brainstormed in small groups to begin the writing process and then gathered in a larger group to finalize the lyrics. The lyrics were sent via email to a music teaching artist who helped edit the lyrics (via email communication) and then composed the music. The teaching artist then visited the classes to explain his application of music to lyrics and teach the students to sing their song. Each class traveled to a local university with professional recording equipment to record their song. CDs were made available to students, parents, and the community. The researchers chose teachers with whom they had previously established relationships. Researchers gathered data in the form of field notes, artifacts (letters, student writing, and the recordings of the students’ songs), interview transcripts, and photos and video, and then analyzed these data for patterns and connections.

Limitations of the Research:

The sample size is small, only four classes. The researchers do not specify the number of students in the project nor the location and demographics of the school. Participating teachers were familiar to the researchers, which could create a dynamic that is less objective. It is also unclear whether the researchers conducted direct observations of the activities or whether the classroom teachers reported the events to them. Students were not involved in the music composition and had limited interaction with the teaching artist. There is no data showing student test results post lyric writing. There was also no control group to provide data taken from a science class that was not involved in the lyric writing activity for comparison.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Did participating students carry their interest for multi-modal learning into other classes? Could this same approach be used for older students in middle and high school? Would collaborations between grade levels be a possible extension of the research?