Michael Griffin

Providing (Music) Student Feedback

Providing Student Feedback


Original Article…

Quality feedback is one of the most effective influences on student achievement. It is different and more beneficial than praise, which essentially is information-less feedback. Whilst most teachers are confident in their ability to give feedback, it remains an area where most of us can continue to improve. What follows are some notes that might be considered when offering feedback in a piano lesson.

Quality feedback is informational, it is specific. Whereas praise includes utterances like “that was fabulous!” as an end, quality feedback goes further, specifying what was good about the playing. For example: “Your dynamic contrast was compelling.” or, “You played the first page without any hesitations or errors. That’s fluency! Well done.” Effective feedback is better when framed as an observational comment rather than personal judgement. For example, “you played the first page without any hesitations or errors” is factual and observational, whereas “I like how you have eliminated hesitations” is more judgemental. Generally, people prefer not to be judged and hence are more open to observational feedback. “I notice you’ve been practising well lately (how do I know? Your playing is improving!)” rather than “I like it that you have been practising more”. The aim is not for the student to want to please the teacher, but to learn how to self-evaluate and analyse at a level of musical competence.

Feedback should be quick and regular but preceded by an opportunity for self-evaluation. Therefore, before teacher advice, it is wise to invite the student to evaluate their playing. “What do you think?” This might be uncomfortable or challenging for a student. Teachers can scaffold this process. For example: “Tell me two good things about your playing just now”. This is valuable not only because we teach for independent learning, but because personal recognition of progress fuels motivation. To remain motivated, students must perceive they are making progress because of their efforts. Teachers can also facilitate student evaluation ability by playing reversing roles. That is, the teacher could play student repertoire (an act –deliberately making mistakes) and have the student assume a teacher role and “assess” the teacher’s playing. Simple criteria – correct notes, tempo, phrasing, and expression might be the focus of this learning exercise. More generally, before teachers provide feedback, questioning fosters student autonomy and self-determination: “What are you thinking about the role of rubato in this passage?” “Are you happy with this tempo or might we look at it differently?” “Can you tell me which phrases you find most challenging, and why?” “How will you practise this at home?” The most effective teaching uses questions more so than commands.

Quality feedback is genuine, honest, and consistent. Honest feedback sends a message of teacher high expectation of student potential, and of high teacher standards. Praise though, is often inflated and exaggerated. When students perceive this, they might think the teacher has low standards, or a low opinion of their potential. Some teachers over praise in the hope that it encourages and fosters self-esteem. Any temporary boost in self-esteem from false compliments will not endure, for self-esteem is the consequence rather than the cause of healthy behaviours. Success leads to self-esteem, not the other way around. As Carol Dweck says, “you cannot hand children self-esteem on a plate”. Self-esteem is developed by overcoming a personal challenge and through altruistic actions.

Quality feedback targets both the competent and less competent aspects of the playing. One study by Katie Zhukov reported that instrumental music teachers are specific when criticising, but not when praising their students. For example, “that was really good (lacking specifics) – now this is what you need to do from here… (more specific)”. Feedback is more effective when correct processes are reinforced prior to incorrect processes. For example, rather than “no, that’s not right”, affirm the musical constituents that are being attended to and then refer to the areas that require more work. “The notes were accurate and your phrasing logical and musical. Shall we look at the dynamics now?” In doing so, be careful using “but” and “however” as these conjunctions can add a tone of control, undermining the positive message. Feedback needs to entice students to work in a new way. When offering critical suggestions, prefacing remarks with “I wouldn’t be giving you this feedback if I didn’t think you were capable of using it to improve” increases the probability of acceptance. Use “perhaps you might consider” “you might try” “do you think” and other gentle modal questioning to direct attention. We appreciate the frailty of ego when it comes to critical feedback. Whilst it is imperative to address short-comings – and we do our students the disservice of low-expectation if we avoid it – this gentle approach is more likely to be received and even welcomed by the student. Feedback that is informational and related to competence is incredibly important and highly motivational. But feedback is a waste of time if not accepted and acted upon, and sad to say, much valuable feedback goes unheeded. It is how the students receive and accept feedback that counts. Rather than the teacher relying on student verbal affirmation or a nod of the head indicating they understand an instruction, for feedback to have been effective it must be manifested in action and improvement.

Thus far we have discussed feedback from teacher to student. But equally important is feedback from student to teacher. What this means is we need to find out from students what they do and do not understand, and what they can and cannot do. This means observing practice. How often do teachers observe students practising, or students observe teachers practising? The student arrives for a lesson: “Hi Johnny. Today the lesson will be different. I’m going to sit in the corner – I’d like you to practice for 30 minutes just like you do every day at home. I won’t disturb you.” Not interrupting can be difficult when practise is poor and ineffectual, but it is important to allow the student to practise for the entire 30 minutes, or shorter depending on the usual practice routine of the student. Resist the urge to interfere and make comments! You will collect the most valuable feedback – from student to teacher, for teaching progress. A teacher commented to me on his experience from this recently: “What an eye-opener! My student didn’t stop to correct errors, practised too fast and always started a piece from the beginning. It was hard for me not to interrupt!” The focus of teacher feedback has now shifted to practice methods.

Michael Griffin is a pianist, educator, author, and speaker. His website is He is the author of “Learning Strategies for Musical Success” and “Developing Musical Skill – For Students”. Available on Amazon or email

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M. Ed Studies, B.Ed.

A. Mus. A

Adelaide, South Australia



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