Predicting dropouts in Piano lessons

Predicting dropouts in Piano lessons

In a previous post, I provided some research about instrumental lesson dropouts and what are the behaviours predictive of dropouts. To provide more information about student motivation and instrumental lesson dropout, a study by Costa-Giomi, Flowers and Sasaki (2005) investigated the behavioural differences between students who continued piano lessons and students who dropped out of piano lessons. Previous research has examined several factors in the early stages of instrumental lessons including lesson content and delivery, parental support and influence, and student/teacher interactions.

Research of student-teacher interactions found that there are high rates of verbal reinforcement in lessons, although less than half of these were positive interactions. Many were disapproval statements (Kostka, 1984). Further research by Siebenaler (1997) on verbal interactions during piano lessons suggests that the feedback given should be informational and instructional and not criticism, which can be personal. This quality of feedback is an important concept of self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985) in which informational feedback is autonomy and competence supportive (Reeve, 2006).

Achievement in instrumental lessons is another issue which has been addressed. Previous research has coded piano lesson progress into “forwards progress” and “backward progress” (Siebenaler, 1997). Results showed that much of the lesson progress was spent playing, but only 13% of this progress could be considered “forward progress”. Forward progress represents complexity whereas backwards progress represent simplicity. Progress is largely under teacher control, therefore the teacher controls the musical goals of the student. Goal direction can affect persistence and ultimately achievement (Ames & Ames, 1984; Pintrich, 2000).

Student dropout research shows that those who discontinue lessons usually started lessons for non-musical reasons and relied on external motivation for practice and progress (Pitts, Davidson, & McPherson, 2000). Further research has shown that students who drop out of lessons have lower motivation and diminished achievement (Hallam, 1998). Costa-Giomi et al (2005) found no differences for cognitive, motor, self-esteem and demographic factors. What this finding suggests is that students who drop out of lessons have a different motivational profile than students who continue.

Costa-Giomi et al (2005) found students who dropped out missed more lessons and completed less piano homework. Less practice is also shown to be a predictor of student dropout (McPherson & Davidson, 2010). Before the lessons commenced, these students had high expectations of the amount of practice they would do. These students may have a different view of the self-regulation required to learn a musical instrument and inability to self-regulate practice behaviour is predictive of lesson discontinuation (McPherson & McCormick, 2000). Results of the Costa-Giomi et al (2005) study suggests that students who drop out ‘behave differently’.

In Costa-Giomi et al (2005), confounding variables were controlled for to try for a sample representative of typical piano student/lesson characteristics. The lessons were recorded and verbal interactions were coded. Coding for amount of time teacher and student spent playing, types of verbal interactions, correction types, and the frequencies of these occurrences.

The results of Costa-Giomi et al (2005) demonstrated there were differences in behaviour of those students who dropped out in the first year and those who dropped lessons in the second year. Dropouts sought more approval but actually received less approvals and verbal cues from their teacher, though this finding was non-significant. Students who continued on after the first year has more “progress forward” in their lessons and this was a significant finding. The only difference between first and second year dropouts was the amount of approval-seeking from the teacher. First year dropouts were found to seek more approval from their teachers than second year dropouts. Second year dropouts received more verbal cues from their teacher.

Teachers made approximately one approval and one correction per minute. Students who continued received more approvals; students who discontinued received more corrections. Dropouts sought approvals more than once per minute on average. There was little teacher playing (modelling) evident in the lessons, and between 20-25% ‘progress forward’ in the lessons.

The Costa-Giomi et al (2005) findings imply that variables related to achievement differentiated the students who dropped out, to the students who continued piano lessons. Diminished achievement is associated with lesson dropout (Costa-Giomi, 2005), though this is not necessarily a predictor of a dropout student. Significant differences in student behaviour for dropouts occurred in the second year of tuition. These dropouts sought more teacher approval but received less approval from the teacher than students who continued with lessons. The authors suggest teachers perceive the student is not progressing and react accordingly. There is a cyclical pattern occurring where the lack of progress leads to lack of achievement.

In terms of expectancy-value theory (Eccles, et al., 1983), lack of progress has implications. If there is lack of expectancy for achievement, then motivation to persist would decrease over time. Compounded with the lack of achievement in lessons and exams, the few experiences of success impact student perceptions of progress and ability to succeed. To alleviate the non-successful experiences the teacher would need to create opportunities for the student to experience success, no matter how small, as opposed to switching off the responses to the approval-seeking behaviour. The authors suggest that the teacher may have failed to respond to the student and the student continually seeking approval, though these is no significant finding for this.

There were no differences found in the type of verbal behaviours of the teachers, which leads to the suggestion that the approval-seeking may be related to an aspect of the piano lesson itself. The students who continue with lessons seemed more independent and autonomous. It is not clear whether the independence and autonomy is generated in response to teacher behaviour, creating a loop of feedback-support for the student in their learning.

The study matched for all other variables, so behavioural differences in students could be focussed on. The students who dropped out were characterised by diminished achievement which can be brought about by several reasons. Expectancy-value theory can explain how students reach the point of drop out through lack of successful experiences, culminating in perceptions of low expectancy to succeed in future similar tasks. Additionally, these students exhibit low motivation to practice and take on lessons for unmusical reasons. These may be good indicators to teachers of students who are likely to discontinue. Such indicators can allow for the development of strategies to increase engagement and persistence.

Finally, the approval-seeking of the students who drop out may mean they are more extrinsically motivated. Extrinsic motivation is not facilitative of long-term commitment (Rigby, et al., 1992; Ryan & Deci, 2000; Zuckerman, et al., 1978) and care needs to be taken with interactions and feedback concerning these students during lessons.


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Costa-Giomi, E., Flowers, P., & Saski, W. (2005). Piano Lessons of Beginning Students Who Persist or Drop out- Teacher Behavior, Student Behavior, and Lesson Progress. Journal of Research in Music Education, 53(3), 13.

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Siebenaler, D. J. (1997). Analysis of teacher-student interactions in the piano lessons of adults and children. Journal of Research in Music Education, 45(1), 6-20.

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