How (and Why) Giving Students Choices, Can Dramatically Improve Learning

Maybe it’s just my inner control freak, or all those years of violin practice, but whether my kids are practicing piano, Taekwondo, or Mario Kart, it’s very tempting to intervene and direct their practice. Like telling them what to work on, how to work on it, and so on.

But then I watch as they try to solve problems in other parts of their life. And whether it’s learning how to use GIMP to create transparent png’s, or creating a homemade earbud holder using a sewing machine, felt, and velcro, I see them Googling and looking up YouTube videos for help, and everything seems to work out just fine. Better than fine, actually. Any time they learn something on their own, it seems to go smoother, faster, and they take more away from it.

Of course, music is a little more complex, and we don’t want to allow too many opportunities for bad habits to form. So is there a way to reconcile the two? To get some of the learning benefits of self-directed learning, but with the guidance that allows them to learn new skills the right way from the very beginning?

Ballet time

A team of researchers recruited twenty-four 10-year old girls to learn five classical ballet positions1.

Each participant was shown pictures of each position and given a verbal explanation of what to do. Then, it was time to give it a try. And after their first practice attempt, half of the participants (the choice group) were told that if they wanted, they could ask to see a video demonstration of the positions before any subsequent practice attempt.

The other participants (the no-choice group) were told that they would be shown videos from time to time, but not given any choice as to when. Each of these participants were “yoked” to another participant in the choice group, such that whenever their counterpart requested a video, they would be shown a video too.

Everyone did 50 practice repetitions (5 sets of 10), and then they were done for the day.

Who learned more?

The next day, participants returned for a retention test2 to see how much they could remember from the previous day.

Before I tell you how they did, let’s take a step back, and see what their practice session looked like (see graph below). Do you see how both groups started off their practice session performing at about the same level? And then how their learning curves start to diverge pretty quickly from there? Sure, both groups improved, but the choice group improved way more.

Adapted from Lemos, A., Wulf, G., Lewthwaite, R., & Chiviacowsky, S. (2017). Autonomy support enhances performance expectancies, positive affect, and motor learning. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 31, 28-34.

So it’s probably no surprise that when it came time to take the retention test, the groups’ performances weren’t even close. The choice group totally outperformed the no-choice group.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems remarkable that in the same amount of practice time, with the same exact amount and type of instruction, two groups of similarly skilled 10-year-olds experienced a very different learning trajectory. Simply because one group of participants had slightly more choice in the timing of their instruction.

The power of autonomy

But wait. Might it just be that timing is the key? Or is it really because they experienced more autonomy in the learning process?

Well, it’s probably a bit of both, but previous research suggests that autonomy has a surprisingly powerful effect on learning.

Like allowing learners to choose when to receive feedback. Or when to see demonstrations of the skill they’re trying to learn. Or what order to practice a set of skills in.

And what’s really weird, is that allowing learners to choose seemingly unrelated things still appears to enhance learning. Like what color ball to use in a putting task. Or which of two Renoir paintings should be hung up on the wall of the research lab after completing a balancing task (seriously, that really happened).

So what’s up with that? Why does choice seem to make such a big difference?

Why choice matters

Intuitively, you’d think that maybe learning is enhanced because people are more engaged and process things more deeply when they get to make choices about their learning. And there might be some of that involved, but the colored ball and painting examples suggest that this can’t be all of it.

Some notable researchers in this area believe that it’s also a matter of self-efficacy. That feeling like we’re in control of a situation (autonomy) increases the sense that we’ll also be successful at the task at hand (self-efficacy). And that when our self-efficacy goes up, we’re more motivated, our focus is heightened, and all the factors that need to be present for maximal learning all come together.

There is also the possibility that autonomy could facilitate more positive feelings in the learning process too. Which is associated with the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, that in turn has been implicated in the memory consolidation of motor skills.

Psychological measures

To further investigate these possible factors, each participant was also given a series of assessments during the process – including a short self-efficacy quiz and a simple happiness measure.


Participants’ self-efficacy ratings were all about the same at the outset of the study (4.4 for the choice group vs 5.3 for the no-choice group). But by the end of their practice session, things had begun to shift. The choice group’s self-efficacy score increased to 6.3, while the no-choice group remained a 4.7. And the difference was even greater the next day before their test – 8.0 for the choice group, and 4.9 for the no-choice group.

Positive affect

The choice group was also happier after their practice session, with a happiness score of 185.41 vs. 107.83 for the no-choice group (on a scale of 0-200).

All of which seems to provide further support for the idea that autonomy increases self-efficacy and positive affect, which in turn leads to a more effective motivational state for learning.

Take action

So the evidence suggests that we certainly don’t have to unleash our kids and students on Google and YouTube and let them freely self-direct their way to Carnegie Hall.

It’s more about looking for opportunities to provide them with choices in their learning efforts. I remember one of my teachers often gave me fingering or bowing choices. With explanations about the relative pros and cons of each. But heck, even if the choice is tangential to the task (Do you want to do your math homework after practicing? Or your lab report?), it may still be worthwhile.

For those of you who are already doing this, I’m curious…what are some of your favorite or go-to choices that you offer your students that seem to boost the effectiveness of their practice?


  1. Specifically, the prepatory position, demi plié, tendu, passé, and elevé.
  2. Consisting of 10 trials with no reminders or demonstrations of how to perform the positions.

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


11 Responses

  1. Some of my students were having a difficult time getting enough practice time in. So we went over their schedules after school and they discovered how much time was wasted. They decided what days/times to practice and have stuck to their choices since then. Their playing has improved and they seem to like the practice “habit” they’ve chosen.

  2. I usually let kids pick a piece they want to play. I offer a couple of lateral move pieces, play them for them, show them the tricky spots, and then they pick. If they like something they will practice it. I don’t show them things I don’t want them to play. (They have no choice on scales or etudes. ) I’ll also dangle a very sexy piece for in the future so they have a reason to get the current new piece learned.

    1. I like your idea of dangling a very sexy piece in front of them. I need to adopt this dangling, rather than saying “Well, we need to wait on that one.” Instead I can say, “Wow! What a great piece to work toward. Let’s remember that one for a few weeks from now when you’ve accomplished xxx.” And, I need to play it for them, from time to time. Thanks for this encouraging idea!

  3. * * * I have my students listen to the music in their new books (from the companion CD or from my playing) and rank the compositions 1 to 5 based on their impressions. Then, we choose their next pieces together, selecting the ones that will benefit them the most from their “top picks.” * * * Also, after they play for me during a lesson, we celebrate their successes and together identify the 2-3 things that need some focus. I then allow them to choose one thing they really want to focus on for the next week. They often choose the most critical thing. If they choose something less important, we work on their concern and my concern (the most critical thing.) * * * It’s always important for my students to know that they are the ones deciding how much and when to practice. When we review their practice regimen (if either little progress or great progress is occurring), I help them see the connection between amount of focused time and their progress – in music, in sports, in academics, in relationships, in life.

  4. Like Carol Spencer, I let my students choose their pieces. And also, when we’re working through a piece, I let them choose what they want to focus on next. I try to encourage in them the self-efficacy of “now I want to learn this”. In this sense, the students are almost “teaching themselves” – I only intervene when I have the feeling that another next step might bring more possibilities down the line.

  5. My students are taught to practice vocal technique for 10 minutes at a time with a toolbox of ideas & methods that are juxtaposed with each other. That is, I train them to think of two things at once. What those two things are is up to them.

  6. I have a student who backed out of playing at the last student recital (her first with me). So we brainstormed a list together of performance opportunities and she has been picking one or two a month and performing. We have a chart to record what she did each month. The list includes things like playing for her family; having a sleepover and playing for her friends; playing at church; a seating audition at school; even recording herself on her phone and posting it somewhere. It helps that her mom plays piano, so she often has accompaniment. The next student recital is in June, and she picked a piece she is looking forward to playing (with her mom at the piano).

  7. I let my students choose the tempo, sometimes the articulation and expression. I think it is very important and a;so effective. Thank you dr Kageyama for pay attention for this things.

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