Task Difficulty and Task Feedback

Ever had students who choose pieces that we know are to difficult for their ability? It may be a contemporary popular music piece that the teenage student likes. Some of the time is it a Piano/Vocal/Guitar chord type of a piece which has not been arranged for beginner and intermediate piano students. We may allow the student to learn it because we would like them to learn pieces they enjoy and can relate to. Enjoyment of repertoire and interest (Austin & Berg, 2006) is important to students’ motivation. However, there can be quite a big downside to learning repertoire beyond the student’s ability level.  


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There are many hurdles to overcome when students attempt to learn difficult repertoire and some of these hurdles are not so obvious. Difficult repertoire sends a particular kind of message to the student and it involves task feedback. Feedback a student receives about this task will only be about task properties of the difficulty of learning the piece. Success or failure on difficult tasks provide little self-evaluative feedback to the student. Students’ self-evaluative feedback about progress is overtaken by task difficulty. However, tasks of intermediate difficulty, for example, repertoire well-suited or just above the student’s ability level will provide the most useful self-evaluative feedback to the student (Weiner, 1972b).


Self-evaluative feedback is an important factor in student motivation. It provides the student with the necessary information about their performance on a task and allows the student to make causal attributions to their success or failure. Causal attributions explains achievement-related behaviour and how a student links success or failure to either their effort, ability, task difficulty of luck (Weiner, 1986). 


The scenario painted in this example would possibly lead the student to experience failure and failure will be attributed to lack of ability or task difficulty. Ability is considered a stable trait and unlikely to change, so students will assume that is the way it will always be. The expectancy of future successful performance will be low. As can be seen, poor selection of repertoire and a string of unsuccessful performances on tasks will continue to decrease a students’ motivation. 

It is vital as teachers that we are able to maintain student interest through appealing repertoire, but this repertoire must suit the student’s ability. There are many beginner and intermediate arrangements of popular songs available as well as arrangements of popular classical repertoire. Sometimes teacher knowledge and guidance will go a long way to maintaining and improving student motivation.


Austin, J. R., & Berg, M. H. (2006). Exploring music practice among sixth-grade band and orchestra students. Psychology of Music, 34(4), 535-558.

Weiner, B. (1972b). Theories of motivation. Chicago: Markham Publising Co.

Weiner, B. (1986). An attributional theory of motivation and emotion. New York: Springer-Verlag.

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