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 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.


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