Canvas Spotlight Course Showcase

Course Showcase – MUS 1010: Essential Music Theory Skills

Last updated on May 21, 2024

Courses that rely on the demonstration of skills can often feel like a difficult task to bring to the online environment. Through visual media, it is possible to bring both your subject, and you, to life for your online students. In this exemplary course, we’ll look at the recent work of Dr. Jeffrey McCray who took up the challenge to bring “Essential Music Theory Skills”, a class that traditionally relies on in-class demonstrations and practice, to an online setting. He knew that lecture videos would have to meet the diverse needs of his students, who would need to see and hear the material in a way they could duplicate on their own.

This article examines exemplary techniques and strategies implemented that can help to bring a course to life, enhance engagement, and how to leverage multimedia to enhance learning outcomes.

Dr. Jeffrey McCray holds a bachelor’s degree in bassoon performance and a master’s degree in orchestral conducting from Northwestern University. Additionally, he earned a master’s degree in bassoon performance from Temple University. In 2007, Dr. McCray completed the Doctor of Musical Arts degree at Michigan State University. He is an Instructor in Bassoon and Music Theory at Metropolitan State University of Denver, as well as a bassoon instructor at Colorado State University-Pueblo. He is also Principal Bassoon in the Lincoln (NE) Symphony Orchestra, Principal Bassoon in the Grand Junction Symphony Orchestra, and Third/Utility Bassoon in the Colorado Springs Philharmonic.

In MUS 1010, Dr. McCray utilized various techniques in his recorded lectures to create and maintain his own presence as the course’s instructor and his students’ engagement with the material.

Showcase Examples

Instructor Engagement

Students are most successful in online courses when they feel that their instructor is actively engaged in the course and fully committed to their learning. Frequent and consistent use of video lectures helps to establish instructor presence, building trust between student and instructor and motivating the student to learn. Two things that are essential to demonstrating instructor presence are immediacy and credibility.

Instructional Immediacy

  • Instructional immediacy is the perceived distance between an instructor and students. Online courses, when poorly designed and delivered, can leave students feeling isolated, diminishing their enthusiasm and motivation. 
  • Creating videos with yourself front and center can lessen the separation between you and the class by giving students verbal cues and tone, as well as non-verbal cues that cannot be achieved by text or audio alone. 
  • Studies show that students prefer seeing their instructor rather than just seeing slides, even in online environments. Eye contact, even virtually, establishes a connection with students (Ramlatchan & Watson, 2019). 
  • In his lectures in the CTLD Media Studio, Dr. McCray maintains natural eye contact with the camera. In his self-recorded lectures, Dr. McCray still shows his face, and keeps the camera at eye level to maintain eye contact and instructor presence.

Instructor Credibility

  • You can build credibility in the eyes of your students by demonstrating your knowledge and skill. 
  • Students expect and want some form of presented content (Levasseur & Sawyer, 2008) rather than reading or passive materials alone. 
  • Personally presenting content to students, like Dr. McCray’s PowerPoint lectures, increases ratings of instructor credibility, which increases student engagement in the course (Ramlatchan & Watson, 2019).

Media Techniques to Increase Learner Engagement

When creating a video, you can use numerous techniques to draw your students’ attention and encourage their engagement with the material Here are some of the helpful techniques Dr. McCray uses to enhance his lecture videos:

  • Dr. McCray employs an overhead camera to show the keyboard during his demonstrations, giving the students a first-person perspective. This creates a sense of agency in the learner and is a good strategy to consider if you do demonstrations in your own course (Mayer, Fiorella, & Stull, 2021).
  • Some concepts are better communicated visually than verbally. According to the dynamic drawing principle, students learn better from videos that show instructors drawing graphics as they lecture rather than referring to graphics that are already created (Fiorella & Mayer, 2016). When your students watch you drawing, they get a sense of social partnership and personal engagement, contributing to deeper levels of understanding (Mayer, Fiorella, & Stull, 2021).

Knowledge Checks for Retrieval

Videos can be a very useful learning tool, but they should be supplemented by a less passive activity to keep students actively engaged with the material. You can encourage student participation through generative learning activities:

  • Generative learning activities are behaviors that learners perform in order to improve their learning (Mayer, Fiorella, & Stull, 2021). Dr. McCray uses a specific generative activity: learning by enacting. He has frequent physical demonstrations of how to clap rhythms, count meter, and sing scales which he then asks his students to perform. This gives the students practice opportunities and allows them to integrate what they have learned in the lecture and process the material more deeply.
  • You can build knowledge checks into your videos and the surrounding page to offer low-stakes assessment and opportunities for practice.  Encouraging students to retrieve what they have just learned in a lecture allows students to engage in deeper processing of the material and develop a sense of what they know and what concepts they may need to review.

Partnering for Continuous Improvement in Teaching and Learning

A significant factor in the success of this and similar projects is the support and funding from the Office of Online Learning (OOL), which has been instrumental in enhancing the quality of our online educational endeavors. OOL’s support and contributions have empowered faculty members to innovate and create a more enriching educational environment for all. Please visit the Office of Online Learning for more information about all that they are doing to help MSU Denver faculty members and students.


Fiorella, L., & Mayer, R. E. (2015). Eight ways to promote generative learning. Educational Psychology Review, 28(4), 717–741.

Levasseur, D. G., & Kanan Sawyer, J. (2006). Pedagogy meets Powerpoint: A research review of the effects of computer-generated slides in the classroom. Review of Communication, 6(1-2), 101–123.

Ramlatchan, M., & Watson, G. S. (2019). Enhancing instructor credibility and immediacy in online multimedia designs. Educational Technology Research and Development, 68(1), 511–528.

Stull, A. T., Fiorella, L., & Mayer, R. E. (2021). The case for embodied instruction: The instructor as a source of attentional and social cues in video lectures. Journal of Educational Psychology, 113(7), 1441–1453.