There is much debate in the educational community about whether to use extrinsic motivators (i.e. practice incentives) to encourage students to perform required tasks or meet certain objectives. Those in the non-incentive camp tend to assert that motivation should be intrinsic and that the completion of the task or the attainment of the objective is itself the best reward. Obviously, I am a proponent of using extrinsic motivators! However, I don’t believe that it has to be an either/or proposition. I think it is possible, and highly effective, to design a practice incentive that creatively instills motivation and ultimately capitalizes on the reward of [in this case] learning to play the music itself. That’s what I attempt to do each year with the practice incentives that I develop. This is certainly a challenge, but here are some thoughts on what contributes to a good practice incentive:
1. Age and Level Inclusiveness – the objectives should be structured in such a way that students of any age and level have equal opportunity to achieve the highest level. This is why the practice frequency aspect of my practice incentives emphasize number of days of practice rather than number of minutes – because an advanced high school student will typically have at least an hour’s worth of assignments, whereas a beginning 5-year old will have more like 15 minutes worth of assignments. For example, in the Let’s Have a Ball incentive, each student got to add a ball to their jar based on the number of days practiced. Skill-based aspects of the themes allow for variations based on level as well. For example, in a scale objective, the requirement could range from pentascales up to four octave scales in patterns, based on the ability of the student. However, completion of the skill requirement results in the same end reward, regardless of the student’s level.
2. Realistic and Measurable Objectives – the incentive has to be designed in a way that challenges the student, but makes them feel like it’s possible to be successful. For this reason, I encourage outlining smaller objectives that fit into a cohesive whole. Additionally, they must be able to measure their progress along the way, so the goals have to be concrete. For example, in the Climbing the Ladder to Success incentive, instead of just having an abstract goal like “learn a piece,” the student has a list of step-by-step points they can refer to so that it’s clear when the pieces have been officially learned well enough to warrant moving up to the next rung on the ladder.
3. Student Options – giving the students various objectives from which to choose encourages ownership of their goals and an increased sense of responsibility in their practicing. This might entail setting a specific repertoire-related goal, choosing from a list of technical challenges, or selecting a piece of music to sight-read, etc. The key is to somehow incorporate these individual options into an overarching theme that involves the whole studio. For example, in the Go For The GOLD! incentive, during each of the 5-week sessions, students had a list of extra activities they could do on their own to earn additional points for their team. Watching the team points accrue week-by-week on the wall served as plenty of motivation for the students to be constantly looking for ways to earn more points!
4. Rewards/Prizes that Contribute to Musical Growth – In many ways, the primary reward my students experience is that of having reached new musical heights or excellently learning and playing fun repertoire. The excitement of these incentives is driven more by the process and the experience than any tangible prize. “Prizes” might include attending a symphony rehearsal with me, going on a special invitation-only musical tour, or taking a trip to a recording studio. Whenever I do give tangible prizes, I opt for items like music dictionaries, a composer fandex, a gift card to the local music store, a customized gift I’ve designed especially for them (like these music manuscript books), etc.
Hopefully these are some helpful tips for those working on developing their own practice incentives. Can you tell I’m still absorbed in planning my studio practice incentive theme for next fall? I always love to hear ideas from others, so if you’ve got some ideas, please share! Are you planning any new incentives for the fall? What practice incentives have you found to be the most effective in the past?