Teaching Performance-Based Classes Remotely

For those of us who have ever taught courses that require a lot of practicing a skill, this move to remote and online instruction is crushing.  It is one thing to record a video of something you’d tell your students and put it up online somewhere for them to access, and another thing to think about a performance based course.  When I first taught drama online, I could not see how to do it, as I did not want to lose both the “doing” and the “together” parts of when everyone is learning by themselves at different times. To be honest, I still really prefer teaching drama in a room with my students face to face (F2F), rather than asynchronously (students learning at different times) online.  But I’ve learned some things that can help physical movement classes and performing arts, so I thought I’d share them.

As I see it, there are some common elements that are a part of all the moving and arts classes we might call performance classes. Performance-based courses focus on students refining skills by observing, breaking complex components into parts, practicing (often with others), and then refining based on feedback. The process occurs many times, and student practice to improve skills, learning to do complex skills with others, and develop automaticity.  Performance-based courses have periodic culminating tasks that have an audience – think game day or a concert/show.

The 4 key elements for an performance course include:

  1. Observing or listening to understand the criteria for good
  2. Breaking complex tasks into small parts
  3. Iterative loops of practice, feedback, and collaborating with others to refine and improve performance
  4. Presentation of learned skills in a complex situation with an audience

Observing and listening:
This stage is actually done pretty well in a remote setting, and I have built videos I’ve wound up using face to face because I can zoom in, focus on what I need my students to see and hear, and slow things down.  Generally, I find text-bases explanations to be poor substitutes, so I use many short videos to demonstrate and explain in my online, performance based courses.

Breaking complex task into small parts:
Again, video is my friend, as is something instructional designers call chunking. I think of it as the components of each separate skill or decision.  Watching game tape, freezing, and rewinding is a great way to break a complex task into parts in either a face to face or online environment.  So is watching the online concerts and performances that many arts organizations are posting right now. My students have never been able to see the National Theater in London, but they can right now. I combine all that watching with asking them to think about specific parts of what they are seeing and how those parts contribute to the whole.

Practice, feedback, and collaboration:
I think this is the hardest version to do online.  Student can often practice on their own – in fact we expect them to do a lot of drill and practice of fundamentals to develop automaticity. But it is much harder to combine the fundamentals the way we need you to in a performance (especially with others) and give feedback.  I started doing a lot clarifying what good sounds like or looks like, and then having my students create video (think playing tests if you teach music) of themselves performing. There are many good apps available for specific disciplines that allow students to work together at distance, but they tend to be discipline specific, so a summary of all of them isn’t likely to be helpful here.

I have learned that I can’t give all the feedback the way I do F2F because it just takes too much time.  Because the criteria are clear, my students give feedback to each other (and are graded on the quality of their coaching and suggestions periodically) and I focus on feedback for final tasks. It gives me some of the collaboration, but doesn’t actually give full experience of ensemble or team.  I am not saying I don’t have student film joint scenes in two separate locations, because I do (and professional actors do), I just think it is not the same thing.  I have been able to let that go, because the alternative is that my student just don’t get to take the course, and I don’t want them to stop their practice.

Presentation:
I’ve been doing what many of you have likely already thought of – more video.  As restriction ease, I will move to small groups if I can for some practice and all the performances, but we still won’t have an audience, which is a real loss in theater.  I tell myself the professionals are all living with online concerts and considering playing without an audience, so my amateur class can do that, too.

On resources:
Depending on your area, faculty members and high school specialists have been developing online guides and repositories of tools and resources. Good guides are often structured like this Visual Arts higher education remote guide, and include tools, resources, and instructional advice crowd scored from other professors and experts. This physical education sample lesson plan steps you through the type of process that might make sense for structuring teaching a skill and having a student demonstrate it.