3 Science-Backed Tips to Keep Your Students Motivated


As a music educator, the way in which you manage your classroom can have a major impact on students’ success. Here are three important lessons that science teaches us about keeping students motivated, challenged, and continually improving.  

Beware of the “OK Plateau”

There are three stages to learning any skill: cognitive, associative, and autonomous. In the cognitive stage, students are learning how a skill is performed in their mind and all the nuances that go with it. In the associative stage, students are getting better at performing the task without heavy concentration. Finally, in the autonomous stage, the task is done with hardly any conscious attention paid.

The best example to illustrate this process is driving a car. The problem drivers have in common with musicians and performers is the tendency to make frequent tasks automatic in their minds, become content, and stop looking for ways to improve. Just like these kinds of drivers are more prone to accidents, these kinds of performers are prone to complacency and won’t be as successful as others.

All musicians striving for constant improvement will take note any time they hit a comfort zone, also known as the “OK Plateau.”

Here’s an excerpt from the book, Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career by 99U and Jocelyn Glei. It explains why students should strive to always come back to the cognitive stage and how top performers like apply deliberate practice:

They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the cognitive stage.

When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.

As educators, we should encourage our students that failing as you’re learning is better than becoming good at something and coasting comfortably.

Beware of the Fixed Mindset

You may have already heard of the “fixed” mindset and the “growth” mindset, popularized by the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by psychologist Carol Dweck. A fixed mindset is a state of thinking where someone believes their traits and qualities are based on luck. A growth mindset is when someone believes their traits are based on effort.

As lessons get more challenging, frustration starts to kick in for many students. Students begin to face moments of failure and setbacks. All the practice put in one day is forgotten the next. When this happens, it’s important that students are able to self-talk their way back into a neutral state of mind. Unfortunately, this is when many students (and even their instructors) start labeling themselves as “incapable.” This is when students begin to believe they’re as good as they’re ever going to be, and the fixed mindset starts to creep in.

Day by day, the fixed mindset is reinforced and the student begins to lose hope, motivation, and enjoyment in music. He or she concludes they’re lesser than the other “lucky,” “special,” or “born gifted” students. The fixed mindset can turn into an endless cycle, which makes students feel incompetent in music but also crosses over to other areas such as school and relationships.

If you notice these traits in a student, reverse the effect by constantly reminding him or her that skill and talent is a byproduct of work, lessons learned from failure, and getting back up when you fall short at any project.

Even success can breed a fixed mindset when adults constantly label children as “special,” “genius,” or “the best.” Be mindful of your praise and criticism, and be sure to emphasize verbs over adjectives.  In other words, focus on what a student does or doesn’t do, not who a student is or isn’t. Encourage them to keep trying until they get it right. Here are some notes of encouragement for music students.

Beware of Distractions and Multitasking

In a world of constant distractions, does practice always make perfect? Or is quality more important than quantity? Let’s say you have a student who is embarking on the 10,000-hour rule to become a successful musician. It’s a common goal nowadays that many young musicians are attempting.

Students should ask themselves though if each of those hours spent practicing is an hour that they’re able to focus their full attention on the task at hand.  

The common misconception about the 10,000-hour rule is that all hours are invested equally. Chances are, most students spend half of that time distracted, multitasking, or honing the same skills repeatedly. They rack up the hour count, but not the quality of hours spent in deliberate practice.

Help students learn the difference of practicing more efficiently by ensuring that their environment is free of “background noise” – computers, phones, and TV. There shouldn’t be any temptations to multitask.

Here is some convincing research on how multitasking wears you out, and how even small distractions lead to negative consequences.

Try holding practice sessions at different times of the day, as everyone’s circadian rhythm is different. Help students schedule their own practice sessions ahead of time, so they don’t deplete their energy and succumb to decision fatigue.

Final Thoughts

Discourage complacency in your classroom. Praise effort over character when a student fails or excels. And improve your practice sessions so that time spent is efficiently and productively. Following these steps can help students maintain the right state of mind and increase their chances of long-term success as a musician.

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