Surviving Set Theory: A Creative Approach to Undergraduate Post-Tonal Music Theory

Angela Ripley, Baylor University

Undergraduate music students sometimes find the abstractions and mathematical orientation of pitch-class set theory foreign or even "frightening" (Kleppinger 2010). Pedagogical games can help mitigate student trepidation and resistance by framing challenging content in enjoyable ways. Although a number of pedagogical games have been implemented in the music theory classroom, these tend either to focus on topics outside the purview of set-theoretical analysis or to occur within a single class, thus leaving underdeveloped the potential for longer-term connections among students.

In this paper, I discuss my adaptation of the show Survivor to frame a four-week unit on set theory. As on the show, students worked in "tribes" to complete "challenges"; however, no students were voted out of their tribes. The tribe that earned the highest cumulative score on the challenge worksheets received a non-academic prize. While students' grades were based solely on their own work, the game element promoted peer mentoring through cooperative learning and inspired constructive peer pressure that motivated all students to do their best.

I present empirical results of implementing Set Theory Survivor in the classroom. The self-reported ability of students to perform specific set-theoretical operations increased significantly during the unit, and the majority of students enjoyed the game-like format. By combining the peer support of cooperative learning with the motivational force of constructive intergroup competition and the fun of a pedagogical game, Set Theory Survivor presents an effective approach to a difficult subject and provides a creative tool to enhance the pedagogy of pitch-class set theory.