Metacognitive Instruction: How to Foster Smarter, More Independent Learners


That’s the percentage of time in each week that students and teachers get to spend together. Not very much, huh? Heck, many students probably spend a greater percentage of the week driving to and from each lesson…

The opportunity to receive direct feedback and guidance on how best to improve one’s skills is essential to a student’s learning, but if they are going to make meaningful gains from week to week, much (if not most) of their learning and growth must happen outside of the weekly lessons.

Yet studies have shown that novices tend to engage in practice strategies that are less effective than the more advanced, organized strategies that experts utilize.

A recent study suggests that this needn’t be the case. There are ways in which we can help cultivate better learners and practicers, and accelerate the development of our students by artfully tweaking our approach in lessons.

How, exactly?

By asking questions. But not any old questions! Questions that prompt and trigger a specific sort of thinking.

Practicing as problem-solving

Practicing and repetition go hand in hand, but much of what we do in the practice room (the interesting parts, anyway) is about problem-solving, so that our repetitions reinforce the correct solutions, rather than ingraining bad habits and inconsistencies.

Novice practicers tend to play straight through once or twice, maybe stopping to correct a note here or there, but rarely utilize the deeper, more structured practice strategies that experts rely on.

What do these more “advanced” practice strategies look like exactly? Well, the specific strategies themselves vary from musician to musician, so if you ask five different musicians to describe their practice process, you may get five different answers. However, there is one key strategy that all experts rely on.


Seeing the big picture

Metacognition means being more reflective about the problem-solving process. Specifically, this would involve identifying the tricky sections, figuring out what goes wrong, choosing the most effective strategies to produce improvements (e.g. rhythms? slow practice? one hand at a time?), and then organizing their practice time so they can focus their efforts around the biggest priorities and get the most out of whatever time they have available.

This might seem like a lot to process at first glance. I mean, if one of my teachers had described it to me this way, my eyes would glaze over and I’d cross my fingers hoping the subject never came up again.

So is metacognition an approach that is necessarily reserved for advanced, expert-level musicians? Or is it possible for relative beginners to learn how to use a metacognitive approach and accelerate their learning as well?

Two teaching styles

Six teachers, and 45 of their piano or guitar students (ages 13-19, with most having played for less than 3 years) were recruited for this study.

Part I

Two weeks of teaching

The researchers wanted to see how a metacognitive approach would compare to their regular style of teaching. So, they took half of the teachers, trained them in a metacognitive approach (I’ll explain what this actually looks like at the end of the article) then asked them to utilize this approach for two weeks in their regular lessons.

The other half of the teachers taught in their normal manner for two weeks (control condition), which generally consisted of having the student play, modeling the correct way to play, picking out some trouble spots and guiding the student through them, and deciding whether or not to move on to a new piece.

Two weeks on a new piece + a performance

Then, students were given a new piece, and two weeks to prepare it for a recorded performance which their teacher audio-recorded (for judges to evaluate later in the study).

Part II

Two weeks of teaching, flipped

After the performance, teachers were asked to switch teaching styles. Teachers who had utilized a metacognitive approach reverted to their normal style of teaching, and those who started out teaching in their normal style (the control group) began using the metacognitive approach for two weeks.

Two weeks on a new piece + a performance

Then, students were given a second new piece to learn and perform in two weeks, which they again performed and their teacher recorded.

The results

Three professional musicians rated the two sets of performances on a scale of 1-7 (1=very poor, 7=excellent) in three key areas – rhythm, errors, and overall musicality.

Looking at scores for the first performance, we see some indications of an advantage for the metacognitive approach, with the metacognitive group outperforming the control group in two out of three areas (rhythm – 4.1 vs. 3.3; overall musicality – 3.9 vs 3.2).

The second test of the metacognitive approach was to see what sort of change would occur when students go from being taught like usual, to receiving instruction with the metacognitive approach. Tellingly, the group which received metacognitive teaching second, improved significantly in all three areas from the first performance test to the second performance test (rhythm – 3.3 vs. 4.2; error – 3.4 vs. 4.2; overall musicality 3.2 vs. 4.0).

The last test of the metacognitive approach was to gauge the lastingness of its impact. Indeed, the metacognitive approach seemed to offer a lasting advantage, as those who were taught with the metacognitive approach first, and then experienced the “control” teaching second, produced comparable scores on the second piece as well (they actually scored slightly higher in all three areas on the second performance test, but the differences weren’t statistically significantly).

What does metacognitive teaching look like?

The researchers describe the metacognitive teaching approach as a 4-step model, consisting of a planning stage, playing stage, evaluation stage, and new strategies stage.

The ‘Planning’ stage included analyzing a piece prior to performing, identifying key features, finding patterns, and naming parts that may seem difficult. Students were continuously encouraged to provide examples and verbalize the strategies they might use to play sections of the piece.

‘Playing’ consisted of the student playing the song while being encouraged to actively listen to the sound they were producing.

The ‘Evaluation’ stage consisted of the student identifying difficulties and successes, discussing the strategies she or he employed, and assessing whether they were successful in helping the student learn the song.

‘New strategies’ were discussed by having students describe new ways they could approach/practice parts of the song if their strategies were not successful. The student then planned how these new strategies could be incorporated into their playing and subsequently replayed the song.

If this sounds familiar, you may have encountered the Plan-Do-Review model that many kids and teachers use in school. The example may not be a perfect fit for music practice, but conceptually, it’s totally relevant.

More on metacognition in education here: The Boss of My Brain

Take action

Next week I’ll describe a “shortcut” of sorts that can help us facilitate our own metacognitive thinking, but in the meantime, how could you integrate more metacognitive teaching into your lessons? How might you already be doing so, perhaps without even realizing it?

Photo Credit: theloushe via Compfight cc

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

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

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.

BOGO pricing is now in effect! (through 11:59pm Sunday)

Sign up anytime now through Sunday (Dec. 4) at 11:59pm Pacific, and you’ll receive a second bonus Beyond Practicing account – at no additional cost – that you can gift to a friend, colleague, family member, student, or teacher (i.e. a practice buddy to explore the course with 😁).

Click the red button below to learn more about the course and get the holiday buy-one-get-one-free offer.


9 Responses

  1. This is something I do already a lot with some of my guitar students. We look at a new piece, talk about what is happening and where there might be some problems for them. I do this whenever I may ask my students to sight read something and it seems to work.
    I have them try to visualize them playing the music first on their instrument before they play through it. Then, once they have played it I will ask them what parts were most difficult for them; I can tell right away, it’s just a question of if they can too, and they usually are able to. Once those problems areas are found, depending on what the specific problem is: fingering, placement, etc. I will show them how they might play it more effectively. While this method can seem somewhat tedious it does seem to be pretty effective.
    I try to do this with myself too….

  2. Mapping – mapping – mapping!!!

    Pretty much every tune I teach begins with mapping. It’s the one thing my students universally love most. It addresses most of the obstacles new learners face. Phrasing, rhythm, embellishments, ‘like’ with ‘like’, and other maps take all the mystery out of the music. When we’re finished, students know there is nothing lurking on the page that could jump out and bite them. All the technical issues are worked out before the tune is played.

    But most important, it’s fear that mapping strips out of the playing of the music. They have a complete overview of the tune before they ever pick up the practice chanter. There are very few note errors (which usually aren’t repeated). Assessment starts out acknowledging the good things. Glitches fall into the category of ‘tell me one thing you would like to improve’. New tunes and new technique are welcomed.

    Life in my studio was far from this when I started reading your blog. I have worked hard translating your ideas to teaching people to play bagpipes. I have invited several people to come back and experience this new way of doing things, because more than teaching them how to play, I teach them how to learn. The results are amazing!!

    I’m going to take your ideas this week and run with them. Thanks for all your guidance!!

  3. I’m always asking students process oriented questions: How dod you think that went? What do you need to practice to improve that area? What strategies can you use?

  4. I like your blog. This article is close too my questioning. Would you know how long each of the stages last ?

  5. I am working at making the metacognitive approach working, and it’s not easy.
    I feel like a prehistoric woman manufacturing its tools. After all, tools give a meaning to our lives.
    It’s tough. But it’s like “learn to code, darn it”, plus, the website is so much of help that I can’t complain but ask myself “what ca I do?”, and indeed, here’s how it works :
    There are the four stages : plan, do, review, new strategies.
    But each of the steps are complex.
    I am manufacturing my own “toolbox sheets” for each of the steps.
    As in, strategies exist to “do” (to practice, ex. slow practice), but there are also strategies that exist to write the “planning stage document”‘. I help my self to plan, of sorts.
    Tools (what to write on this “planning stage sheet”) that I use to plan the tools (other ones, such as metronom, recording device+practice strategies) I am actually going to use in the “do” stage.
    All of this is done according to the piece — “what I play”. This is all the art of practicing, and I probably miss elements.
    Then the “review” and “new strategies” steps allow to gauge the overall efficiency and to create new strategies or to use other appropriate strategies, and to think of new things to do with the music (ask yourself : what else can I do?).

  6. One of my favorite quotes from David Gilbertson is : “The intelligent drivers know the rear view mirror, the indicator, and the brake.
    The intelligent contractors know vision, project, and action.”

    David Gilbertson explains that the answers to the questions you formulated are the plan of action of your business.

  7. How to ask questions in 2 steps :
    -Think of something, define it and write it
    -Ask questions

    That’s sad, isn’t it?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Join 48,000+ musicians!

Get the latest research-based tips to level up in the practice room and on stage, from one week to the next.

You'll also receive other insider resources like the weekly newsletter and a special 6-day series on essential research-based practice strategies that will help you get more out of your daily practice and perform more optimally on stage. (You can unsubscribe anytime.)

Download a

PDF version

Enter your email below to download this article as a PDF

Click the link below to convert this article to a PDF and download to your device.

Download a

PDF version

All set!

Discover your mental strengths and weaknesses

If performances have been frustratingly inconsistent, try the 3-min Mental Skills Audit. It won't tell you what Harry Potter character you are, but it will point you in the direction of some new practice methods that could help you level up in the practice room and on stage.

Hello. Add your message here. Learn more
Beat nerves with a friend, with BOGO pricing on the Beyond Practicing course Join Today