Fostering Intrinsic Motivation in Students

As a teacher, one of my goals is that my students find joy and engagement in the process of learning music. The process of learning an instrument is a lengthy one, and finding ways to keep students motivated is one of teaching’s many challenges. When discussing motivation, two main styles or approaches are usually considered: intrinsic and extrinsic. As author Daniel Pink details in his book Drive, environments dependent on if/then rewards reinforce extrinsic motivation and are effective in the short-term. Environments which value autonomy, mastery, and purpose can lead to students developing a sense of intrinsic motivation and finding long-term success. As learning music is a long-term endeavor, it’s important to consider how the learning environment influences student motivation, and actively structure student learning to help promote long-term, intrinsic motivation.

In private lessons, recitals are an essential element of the music learning process and serve as a great example of an in/then reward. The concept of if/then rewards is simple: if you do this, then you’ll get that. In a recital, if you perform well then you will look impressive to your peers and family and receive praise for your playing. We’ve all had students who rarely or never practice and then all of a sudden step it up for a recital, only to immediately go back to not practicing. Recitals are a great short term motivator, but they don’t lead to students finding sustained motivation or success. So the question then becomes how to foster an environment which promotes intrinsic motivation and helps sustain student engagement between big events, such as recitals. 

Autonomy happens when students are given some control over the process and direction of their learning. One simple way to provide autonomy for students is to give them a choice in what music they learn. I have an adult piano student who I had learning initially from an adult piano method. He was moving through the music slowly and failing to play these simple songs at a high level. He then expressed to me that he’d rather ditch the book and learn a specific pop tune instead. The pop arrangement was MUCH harder than what we had been working on, but I let him take a shot at it. My student absolutely stepped up and was eventually able to play this much harder arrangement. Since then I’ve allowed him to continue choosing his music, and as a result he practices very consistently and has shown sustained motivation to continue learning new music and improving his skills. 

Autonomy also includes seeking students’ opinions on the learning process. As Pink states in an interview with Atlassian, “One simple thing leaders can do is to make fewer statements and ask more questions.” In music lessons that can look like asking students what their musical goals are or asking them how they plan to approach their practicing that week. Questions such as those encourage students to assess what they can do for themselves and help to foster a sense of control and investment in their musical pursuits. Having more control and investment then hopefully leads to increased motivation to see those goals through.

The process of mastery involves a student receiving feedback and then turning it into progress, something that is pretty much baked into the fabric of music lessons. To be effective, though, teachers need to provide specific feedback which students can easily understand and apply in their practice. The ability to consistently provide specific and applicable feedback is one of the hallmarks of effective teaching. When students know what they need to improve and are shown how to improve it, they can begin engaging in the process of mastery. I had a trumpet student who was recently working on an etude which had contrasting phrases of F major and F minor, and was cracking the Ab’s through one of the minor phrases. We talked about how the Ab was the note that makes the difference in the two tonalities and that she had to anticipate the sound of the minor tonality in order to fix the cracked Ab’s. When she played the phrase again, all of the notes came out cleanly. By providing her specific feedback about why she was having trouble and then instructing her on how she could be more successful, my student was able to achieve mastery of that phrase. The success achieved is motivating on its own, and the example of how she achieved that mastery provides a blueprint for success when similar challenges come up later.

Purpose is knowing not just simply how to do something, but why you’re doing it in the first place. As a teacher, it’s easy to assign a piece of music without discussing why you’ve assigned it and what the student can learn from it. I’ve been guilty of this many times, myself. By giving a student zero context, they won’t have any goals other than simply learning the basics. If a student knows what they stand to gain from learning a piece, though, they can be more purposeful and effective in their practicing. If I assign a lyrical etude and tell my student that it’s an opportunity to focus on tone and expressive playing then they have a better sense of what they need to achieve and how that piece can help them improve.

The common thread between autonomy, mastery, and purpose, as I see it, is that students understand the reasons for doing what they’re doing. Knowing those reasons can help students gain better insight, control, and investment in the learning process. This leads to a deeper kind of motivation than simply practicing because your teacher said you should or because there’s a recital coming up. By fully engaging students in the learning process with an eye towards autonomy, mastery, and purpose, teachers can set their students up to become intrinsically motivated, long-term learners.

Check out this video of Daniel Pink on motivation: