The theory of motivating music students

About two weeks ago in my beginning music theory class, I decided to have students assign their own homework. Previously, I would tell them they had to get to a certain point, I’d draw a stop sign and hope they’d finish. This never worked.

So two weeks ago I decided to make a change and allow students to pick their own homework as an experiment.

Coincidentally, at the same time, I began to read Charles Duhigg’s new book – Smarter, Better, Faster. In chapter one, he discusses fascinating studies on what happens when people are allowed to make certain choices or have enough freedom to feel that they are in control of their outcomes.

This got me thinking. How can we promote autonomy and self-motivation in our students?

In the book, Duhigg explains case studies where scientists are now pointing to the part of our brain called the ventral striatum. They believe it is crucial in determining our motivation and drive. By allowing students to make more choices and take control of their direction, their ventral striatum working together with their prefrontal cortex can bring about an “addiction to control one’s outcomes”. This could be instrumental in helping students become more self-motivated – simply because they feel that they are in control.

What could you do as an educator to create this healthy addiction in students?

You can create this by teaching a bias towards action and by giving certain feedback to students. When working on difficult pieces and challenges that they assigned themselves, telling students, “you must have worked hard” or “are you proud of yourself?” will activate their ventral striatum or center for motivation in their mind. Your comment conditions students to believe that they can control outcomes based on their choices.

Using language and feedback such as “you did well because you’re smart” ignites the external locus of control. This is more likely to promote a fixed mindset and can lower students overall motivation – so watch out! 🙂

Since I started this new experiment of putting more control into students hands, they have consistently finished their music theory homework and are more prepared for lessons. Let me know what happens if you try it or if you are already doing this and have some great insight.


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