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Feedback in Music Teaching: Why “Good!” is Not Good Enough


Originally posted on April 23, 2013 on Dr. Woody’s Blog: Being Musical, Being Human


As a music teacher, I can get so preoccupied telling students what I’d like them to do, and trying to motivate them to do it, that I forget afterward to let them know how well they did. I may suppose that students don’t need me to spell it out for them. Won’t they hear it for themselves if their music sounds better? Or pick up on the grimace on my face if it doesn’t? Receiving feedback, though, is a criti- cal part of the learning process. If we as teach- ers are not making a point to communicate it to them, we shouldn’t assume that our students are figuring it out on their own. And simply shouting “Good!” while student sing or play their instruments offers little in the long run.


Giving feedback is a hallmark of quality music instruction, but one that can be easily over- looked. Good teachers are keenly aware of the responsibility to manage how time is spent. Although hopefully the biggest proportion of lesson time is occupied by student music making, teachers must also take time to talk to students. In the throes of a well-paced lesson, teachers will want to be efficient with their ver- balizations in giving directions and explaining musical concepts. (I also hope teachers allow for students themselves to talk about their mu- sic making, as this can provide insight into the cognitive strategies underlying performance.) Offering feedback to students is just as impor- tant as these other teacher roles.


Last month I came across two good sources online that took up the topic of feedback. The first was a Freakonomics podcast titled “When Is a Negative a Positive?” (http://freakonomics. com/2013/03/06/when-is-a-negative-a-positive- a-new-marketplace-podcast/). In this short epi- sode, journalist Stephen Dubner shares some research from the field of business manage- ment. Tackling the question of whether posi-


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Robert H. Woody


tive or negative feedback is more motivating, the podcast offers the answer: it depends…on the recipients’ level of expertise. With people who are new to a particular endeavor, positive feedback seems essential to help them increase their dedication to it. But for those who are more expert in a field, negative feedback can be more efficient in producing growth.


This general idea has been found in music education also, as researchers have probed the value of positive versus negative feedback. For teachers who work with beginning musi- cians, one of the most important qualities they can have is a warmth dimension (Lehmann, Sloboda, & Woody, 2007, ch. 3). Most young students thrive under the tutelage of a teacher whose personality is friendly and encourag- ing, and who makes music learning a positive (even fun!) experience. This type of learning environment would necessarily include much positive reinforcement from teacher to stu- dents. However, as kids mature and increase in commitment to their music activities, they seem to be able to handle more critical feed- back from teachers. In fact they may even welcome it, knowing that it can advance their skill level, which in turn makes music par- ticipation more rewarding. Research studies in high school band contexts have found that these older students are able to benefit from negative feedback and they seem to understand that taking criticism is a necessary step toward musical improvement (Duke & Henninger, 2002; Whitaker, 2011).


Another online source that recently took up the topic of feedback was author Annie Mur- phy Paul, who writes much about how people learn. She offered up a blog post on keys to giving good feedback (http://anniemurphypaul. com/2013/03/from-the-brilliant-report-how-to- give-good-feedback). Drawing on the results of educational research, she points out that effec- tive feedback goes beyond just praise or criti-


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