I remember a lesson many years ago, when my teacher told me that her goal was for me to learn how to teach myself. Where I would no longer need a teacher.

I couldn’t have been more than 9 or 10 at the time, so the notion of me teaching myself was completely inconceivable. It was enough of a struggle to play in tune, never mind coming up with my own bowings and fingerings, or figuring out how to make a piece engage and capture a listener’s attention.

But she was right. One day I wouldn’t have a teacher. Or even if I did, I would only have that teacher’s assistance for one brief hour out of each week. Which meant that for 99.4% of the week, I was on my own. And if I wanted to make meaningful progress during the week, I’d have to learn how to teach myself.

So how does one teach someone to become a more independent learner?

Error-detection skills

Part of becoming a more independent learner, is developing the capacity to monitor our own playing and identify errors, so that we can fix these errors in future repetitions.

I know…totally obvious, right? But here’s the thing. When we’re learning something new, it’s often not so clear to us what we’re doing correctly and what we’re doing incorrectly.

So one of the ways we get better at gauging our performance is to receive feedback from someone more knowledgable than ourselves.

But hold on a sec…if we just keep getting feedback from someone else, how is this helping us learn to teach ourselves? Aren’t we just back where we started, dependent on this more experienced feedback-giver?

Puppies and poop

My family recently took in a little puppy. Cute little guy, but potty training has become the bane of my existence.

I must say though, that it’s been an interesting learning experience. I’ve learned, for instance, that puppies need immediate feedback for a behavior to stick. Like, if I walk into the living room and discover that he pooped on the floor, it’s already too late to do anything about it. I can’t track him down and say, “Hey, remember when you pooped over here earlier this afternoon? That’s a no-no. Bad doggie.” He doesn’t get it. He’s just like “yeah, whatever, rub my belly, oh wait is it time to eat now?” and wags his tail.

If I want him to understand that we are not fans of his indoor pooping shenanigans, I have to catch him in the act, and rush him outside so I can give him immediate praise for doing the correct thing. Because if the feedback isn’t immediate, he has no idea what he did to deserve the praise. It’s all about connecting an action with immediate positive feedback. Over and over, until he gets it.

But we’re not puppies.

Or…does it work the same way for us too?

Feedback for optimal learning

76 college students were recruited for a study designed to explore how the timing of feedback might affect the learning process.

They were split into 3 groups, and asked to learn a relatively straightforward motor task1.

The goal of the motor task was to be able to execute the specific movement, and have it take exactly 1000 milliseconds. Sort of like telling someone that they have to conduct a bar of 3/8, and their movements have to take precisely 1 second from one downbeat to the next.

Everyone was given 90 practice trials to learn this new skill, and were given their time score after each attempt, so they could get a sense of how well they were doing.

But not everyone received their time score (i.e. feedback) about their performance at the same time.

One group – the instantaneous feedback group – was allowed to see their time score instantly, as soon as they completed the motor task.

Another group – the delayed feedback group – had to wait 8 seconds before being shown their time score.

The third group – the delay/estimation group – had to wait 8 seconds before getting their time score too. But in addition, they had to estimate what their time score was, and report their best guess 4 seconds after finishing each practice attempt.

Retention tests

During the practice phase, there were no significant differences in performance between the 3 groups. They all performed better as practice went on of course, but improved their performance at about the same rate.

However, we know from other research, that the rate at which our performance improves during practice is NOT a very good indication of how effectively we’re learning. As in, just because the level of our playing improves rapidly (or not) during today’s practice session, doesn’t mean that we’re going to be able to play at this level tomorrow or next week.

So the researchers did some “retention” tests, to see how well the participants would be able to perform this new skill after taking a break. They also took the timer away, so none of the participants received any feedback about their time score, or how they were doing.

10 minutes later…

The first set of retention trials was done 10 minutes after their initial training. Which is not a huge gap, but you know, sometimes we can get into a groove and feel good about a passage, but when we come back to it a few minutes later, it’s gone back to crap again, as if we hadn’t worked on it at all.

In any case, at the 10-minute retention test, there were no significant differences in performance between the three groups.

2 days later…

But then they had everyone come back to the lab 2 days later. And this is where the differences in learning between the groups began to reveal itself.

Those who received instantaneous feedback during practice performed the worst, with time scores that averaged 156.9 milliseconds off of the target time. Their performance also seemed to be a bit more erratic.

Those who received feedback after an 8 second delay, did better. Their average scores were 131.3 milliseconds off of the target time (a 17.7% difference).

The participants in the delay/estimate group, who had an 8-second delay plus were asked to estimate their own performance after each trial, did the best. Their average time score was 90.8 milliseconds off of the target time (a 53.4% difference).

Takeaways

I once had a tennis coach who made me call out “good” or “bad” after hitting each ball. Not in terms of whether the ball went in the court or not, but in terms of whether I made good contact. The idea being, for me to become increasingly less dependent on his feedback, and more in tune with my own sense of whether I was hitting the ball cleanly or not.

To me, the study suggests that we can sometimes give others too much feedback about their performance. Specifically, that providing immediate feedback all the time can stunt the development of one’s error-detection abilities.

I mean, we’re all going to take the easy way out. And if an expert is going to give us expert feedback, why would we bother to wrack our brains to come up with feedback for ourselves that is surely going to be less accurate than that of a teacher?

Unfortunately, this means that our ability to critique our own skills lags behind, and when we go off to practice on our own, and don’t have an expert’s feedback to rely on, our learning is compromised.

It may feel less productive in the moment to have students elicit an estimate of their own performance, but it seems that this can actually result in greater learning in the long run – because the student becomes increasingly capable of directing their own practice and learning between lessons.

And as my teacher said those many years ago, at the end of the day, that’s kind of the point of it all, no? To cultivate artists who can think for themselves; not just instrument-players who follow instructions really well.

Footnotes

  1. Normally, I’d try to describe the nature of the task, but honestly, it’d take a bazillion words to do so, and even then it’s sort of hard to picture, so…just imagine a kid pushing a toy car back and forth a few times, and you’ve got the gist.
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About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

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