Motivation of music students: An SDT perspective

Motivation of music students: An SDT perspective

Music education lacks a cohesive motivational framework. Much of what is known about motivation in music education is comprised from a range of theories and therefore it is difficult to describe and support motivation in music students. Self-determination (Ryan and Deci, 2008) presents a cohesive framework for motivation guided by psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. When these needs are fulfilled, there is greater well-being and enjoyment, motivation becomes more internalised or intrinsic. These findings regarding self-determination are consistent for a range of domains and can be applied to music education. 

An important aspect of self-determination is that is describes the quality of motivation rather than just quantity of motivation. Quality of motivation describes how internalised the motivation is. Fully internalised motivation is regarded as intrinsic and the behaviour for an activity is undertaken for its own sake, such as enjoyment. This is regarded as the highest quality of motivation.

Self-determination theory places motivation on a continuum from intrinsic, the highest quality, through to amotivation, the lowest quality. Moving up from amotivation is external, which is an extrinsic form of motivation where activities are undertaken for compliance reasons such as rewards or punishments. Next is introjected motivation where an activity is undertaken for self reasons such as due to shame, guilt or ego-related reasons.

Following on the continuum is identified motivation in which an activity is undertaken because the value of the activity or task has been accepted as important to a future goal. Next is integrated motivation, which is nearly intrinsic. In this quality of motivation, self-identity plays a significant part in motivation for activities. Examples are an individual wants to become a professional musician or a doctor, so tasks are undertaken which are aligned to this image of the future self. In integrated motivation there is a great deal of congruence of the self with values relating to an activity and therefore, the quality of motivation is close to intrinsic.

According to self-determination theory, higher quality of motivation results when the basic psychological needs of autonomy, relatedness, and competence are satisfied (Ryan & Deci, 2000a). When these needs are not satisfied, in other words thwarted, then the result is said to be psychological ill-being which leads to lower or poorer quality of motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2008).

Competence is the need for one to be effective in skills, abilities, and interactions (Elliot, McGregor, & Thrash, 2002). In terms of music learning, experiences of competence and achievement are said to be motivating influences fulfilling the psychological need for competence. Beliefs and perceptions about abilities is one area of research which is contested. There are two essential beliefs, one is that ability is innate, either you are born with it or you are not. This is prevalent in the musician culture and is termed with labels such as ‘prodigy’ or ‘talented’. These beliefs are aligned to what Dweck and others (Dweck, 1986; Dweck, 2002; Dweck, Chiu, & Hong, 1995; Dweck & Leggett, 1988) term as entity theory and is often referred to as performance orientation. It is the belief that ability is innate and constant. The antithesis of entity theory is incremental theory in which beliefs about ability are not fixed. In this belief, ability can be acquired and improved. This is often termed mastery orientation. Mastery oriented learners will often persist in the face of challenge and difficulty because they have a belief that their ability can improve with effort. Mastery oriented learners in instrumental music learning have been shown to make more and better progress than learners with a fixed or entity theory mindset of belief (O’Neill & Sloboda, 1997).

Relatedness is the feeling of belongingness and acceptance by others. In the case of music education, much of the learning occurs in social contexts and the effects of these contexts is salient. Relatedness through family contexts has been shown to predict levels of achievement and involvement in instrumental lessons (Davidson & Borthwick, 2002; Davidson, Sloboda, & Howe, 1996). In these studies it is the quality of parental involvement which effects student musical achievement and levels of engagement. Teachers also play a role in the satisfaction of relatedness. Teacher relationship quality with students at various stages of musical development are crucial to musical progress and even lesson dropout (Creech, 2009; Davidson, Sloboda, & Howe, 1998).

Autonomy is accompanied by feelings of volition, choice, and being to locus or instigator of one’s behaviour. Studio instrumental lessons tend to be prescriptive or controlled in terms of the learning. This means lesser feelings or satisfaction of autonomy needs for students. Much of the lesson time is taken up with teacher talk (Young, Burwell, & Pickup, 2003). In general, instrumental music lessons can be described as externally controlled and thus externally motivated.

External or extrinsic motivation is detrimental to the satisfaction of psychological needs (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Ryan & Deci, 2000b). External motivation becomes salient with the use of rewards or the overuse of praise. External motivation is used to shape the behaviour of another and this removes any feelings of locus of causality, or the individual being the instigator of their own behaviour. External motivators include use of rewards, demands, excessive praise directed at the individual and not the activity, norm-referenced evaluative criteria, pressure, contingencies or contingent rewards, punishments, setting practice routines and time limits (arbitrary practice goals) with little rationale for the activity, emphasis on success rather than mastery. These behaviours are common in music teaching, particularly at the studio level and lead to thwarting to psychological needs, particularly autonomy.

Although teachers are well-meaning and aim their pedagogical strategies to setting up good practice routines, progress, and interest, it often has the opposite effect. In addition, well-meaning parents who place their children into lessons thinking that it will be good for the child’s development in many ways, including musical, often end up with the situation where they have to force the child to practice. The practice time becomes a chore and a battle ground, and music practice competes with school and other leisure activities in which the child is more interested in participating. The end result is the child feels forced into lessons, associates music lessons with ill-being and eventually drops out of lessons when they can. These well-intentioned behaviours from parents and teachers manifest in psychological needs thwarting for the child. These behaviours move the child toward extrinsic motivation, which has little inherent satisfaction and interest value for the activity.

Pedagogical strategies (Evans, 2015) which are supportive of psychological needs include providing a sound rationale for practice tasks and activities supports competence. The use of praise and feedback focused on the task rather than the individual will help to encourage a mastery orientation to learning. Mastery orientation or growth mindset leads to more persistence at challenging tasks, more effort and progress and is supportive of competence. Minimise the use of emphasis and feedback related to talent and ability as this thwarts competence. Facilitate interaction with other students and develop an encouraging bi-directional relationship with the student. These activities support relatedness. Acknowledge the students’ feelings about the difficulties of a task, piece of music or learning a musical instrument. Simply saying that more practice will fix the problem provides no rationale or task-relevant strategies to overcome specific technical demands of a piece of repertoire. Sound rationales for activities support competence and autonomy. Finally, the provision of choice allowing students to choose suitable repertoire also supports competence and autonomy.

The important point about learning a musical instrument is that no amount of motivation via external contingencies (rewards, feedback) will suffice when encountering a student who is unmotivated. Such strategies are more likely to undermine motivation. Providing motivation in the form of information which satisfies psychological needs will provide for a higher quality of motivation than that which can be obtained through the use of lower quality extrinsic strategies. Strategies which cultivate intrinsic interest and enjoyment will facilitate intrinsic or at least higher quality identified or integrated motivation.


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