Giving students ownership of their learning

If a student feels involved in their learning they are more likely to be highly motivated

Many years ago when I was studying for a teaching diploma I read a really useful book by Susan Hallam and one part of it must have struck a chord with me (no pun intended!).

I got the same book out for one of my own diploma students a few years after and realised I must have soaked up that section like a sponge as it permeates a lot of my teaching.

That section was all about ‘ownership’.

Individuals become intrinsically motivated when they feel that what they are learning is theirs, whether this is playing a particular instrument, pursuing a particular career or taking responsibility

Susan Hallam, Instrumental Teaching

There are many factors that motivate students. To sustain motivation over a long period of time, intrinsic motivation is the ideal as this is where students play and practice a musical instrument because they enjoy it. They are doing it because it interests them and not for any reward.

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is where students are driven by external rewards such as badges, praise, or passing an exam. So a student might take a music exam because they want to get a good mark, for example, or complete a practice challenge to get a prize that is on offer. They get something in return.

If students feel involved in their own learning they are more likely to become intrinsically motivated. Giving them ‘ownership’ of what they are studying can help them on this path.

In music lessons there are all kinds of ways to help students feel like they are fully involved. This might include letting them dictate the order of the lesson or which scale to play first.

Choice over repertoire in general is another great way to achieve this. Do you let your students have a say in what they learn? Similarly, how did your own teachers approach repertoire?

One of my teachers used to choose the music for me whereas another would let me pick from a selection at a suitable level. I have always taken the second teacher’s approach in my own studio. Thinking back to my own lessons, if I chose, I was always more likely to practice it – and therefore progress.

Similarly, having an awareness of the music a student enjoys listening to or playing is helpful and I sometimes try to incorporate this (if possible) into repertoire choices. For younger ones this might mean finding a suitable arrangement of a pop song by their favourite artist or if they enjoy slow ballads, finding something along those lines.

Perhaps you keep teaching notes about a student from week to week and write about what you have covered in a lesson plus areas of technique that need more work. But do you make notes about their likes and dislikes?

If you know that student A was highly motivated when learning that piece by Chopin but they weren’t really inspired with the Mozart Sonata, you start to build up a picture of their musical tastes.

This allows you to tailor your teaching to the individual and could lead to exploring similar composers to Chopin. As an example, one week you set the task of checking out other Romantic composers on YouTube. They come back to you with ideas, and not only have you inspired and motivated them, but they feel as though they are totally involved in progressing on their instrument.

There is a great section in ‘The Music Teachers Companion’ (by Paul Harris and Richard Crozier) where they talk about ‘transferring responsibility’ as a form of motivation. This is where you ask your student what they would like to work on in the lesson, and could be which piece to study first or which section to focus on.

You will find that handing over responsibility in this way may have a very positive effect on both well-motivated and less-motivated pupils. It will also cause them to think about their work from a different and useful angle, focusing their own thoughts on areas of weakness

Paul Harris and Richard Crozier, The Music Teachers Companion

Ben needs to work on a scalic run in his music, for example, so I might say, ‘how many times do you think we should play that run to improve it?’. In this scenario Ben is given some control of the situation and is more likely to engage with what we are doing than if I tell him, ‘let’s play that run 5 times’.

Alice might be finding a couple of bars tricky. Can she put the teacher hat on and think of any ways to solve the technical difficulties herself? By doing this she is taking ownership and fully engaging with her learning.

I would love to hear your thoughts.

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