Self Directed Learning And Reflective Practice Education Essay

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In a background of cultural change and economic uncertainty, Northern Irish third-level music programmes will undoubtedly find themselves having to provide a comprehensive and persuasive rationalization for the place of music education. In order to comply with DEL's Skills Strategy to meet the demand-driven needs of the economy, music departments will need to provide an education experience that generates multi-skilled, self-sufficient and intrinsically motivated graduates.

The primary aim of this project was to enable my guitar students to take control of their own learning and develop their own performance styles using visualisation techniques and applications of embedded music theory. In addition to this, the learner's were encouraged to develop diagnostic approaches to their rehearsal and performance techniques. The target group for this study consisted of National Diploma in Music Performance students at the North West Regional College. All of the students were male, aged between 17 and 19. Participants engaged in six 1-hour workshops over 3 weeks. Assessment took place before, during and after the process. The assessment strategy incorporated practice diaries, peer assessment and assessor observations. Results indicated significant increases in participants' knowledge and understanding of their instruments and an interest on their part for further detailed musical investigation and reflection.


Professional guitarists work in an extremely competitive environment. They must be able to deliver skilled performances in a wide range of circumstances from the stage to the studio, as solo performers or as part of a group and often under great pressure. To be able to work in this environment musicians rely upon the establishment of a deep understanding of music theory and its application along with a refined technique that addresses performance issues such as timing, tone and control. In order to achieve this they have to develop an adaptive, expert approach to the continual development of their musical skills.

The particular issue in this case relates to my guitar students at the North West Regional College. One of the units I teach is called Music Performance Techniques (MPT). My students are all male, aged between 17 and 19. They are all highly motivated guitarists. Their attitude towards practicing is generally quite good but most tend not to focus on their weak points and instead repeat things they already know.

In addition to this, their contextual awareness of music theory is quite poor. Arguably, a lack of understanding of fundamental aspects of music theory will hinder a guitar students' development and, consequently, their employment prospects. Their lack of knowledge relating to music theory is in part due to the fact they are popular music students and not classically trained. Many of them did not study music at secondary level. This issue is not unique to the North West Regional College. Green's research (2001) revealed that it is normal for people outside formal education to learn popular music in an co-dependent way, mainly through individual self-directed work, seldom under the direction of an skilled tutor/mentor, and frequently in collaboration with other practitioners. More and more, in the music department we are engaging with musicians who are self-taught or have relied on a variety of media (books, magazines, websites etc) to expand their musical ability. Additionally, the quality of private teaching that some have received varies enormously. As a result, a large proportion of our music students need help in the improvement of their structured practice programmes. A study by Jørgensen (1998) suggested that music students did not seem to engage in practice planning.

Resnick (1987) contrasted the differences between formal, in school learning, and informal, out-of-school work. Her premise was that formal schooling is 'a setting in which to learn rules' (p. 15), and those students are discouraged from bringing their informally acquired knowledge into this arena. This issue highlights the need to make the music education experience deeply meaningful for the learner. In order to address this concern, Sloboda, Davidson, & Howe (1994) suggested that by examining the musical environment students create when they make music that is meaningful to them, and bringing its principles into the classroom, it would cultivate more success for the students

So by taking all this information and morphing it into an over-arching teaching strategy i hoped to address some of the current issues facing both me and my students.

Therefore, part of the aim of this project was to cultivate a deeper understanding of their instrument in an environment that was conducive to meaningful learning and creativity. By embedding music theory through fretboard visualisation techniques, the students would hopefully begin look at the guitar in an entirely new way that would promote an interest on their part for further detailed investigation and reflection.

Analysis by McCormick and McPherson (2003) suggested that, 'in motivational terms...self-efficacy was the best predictor of actual performance.'

The development of the students' self-efficacy focused on two areas: getting the students to physically being able to play with fluency and dexterity, and arriving at that point through a logical and structured practice routine. Whilst the students' practice regimes are good. Many tend not to focus on their weak points and instead repeat things they already know. By developing and using a structured reflective practice routine, the students can 'take apart' and 'break down' the areas of their playing that need attention logically. The intended ancillary benefits of this approach are developments in tone production, rhythmic control and timing. All of which are integral to music students' development.

By increasing the students' levels of metacognition, the awareness of their own cognitive development and their own self-regulation, or "knowing about knowing" through a reflective and dedicated approach to practice, I hoped that the students would be able to maximise their improvements. Music students high in self-efficacy are more likely to be cognitively and metacognitively involved in studying the material compared with students low in self-efficacy. (Nielsen 2004)

According to McPherson (2003) students' feelings of confidence about their ability to learn or perform a task may play an important role in promoting and sustaining their strategies in practice, and may thus become a fundamental factor influencing the success of their practice sessions.

Establishing clear rehearsal goals and/or structuring practice time are coupled with increased amounts of practice. (Geringer and Kostka, 1981).

The best way to merge and strengthen practical musical skills is to practise and then perform. A wide diversity of music and situations will implement and expand each performer's techniques and disclose where further preparation is needed. Learners will be encouraged to use technical skills creatively and apply them to enhance artistic expression.

The application of learning theories

The research stage of this project began with an examination of some of the various learning theories and seeing how they could apply to my own teaching practices. The learning theories that resonated most with me were the social learning theories, particularly the work of Vygotsky and Bandura.

Action Research

McNiff (2002) succinctly outlines the various stages of action research. 'Identifying a problematic issue, imagining a possible solution, trying it out, evaluating it (did it work?), and changing practice in the light of the evaluation.' (p.6)

After a period of analysis and reflection, I applied these stages into a personal context.

The issue: Lack of 'directed' self-learning and understanding of music theory.

The solution: Introduce a system that embeds the theory and promotes self-learning.

Implementation: Teach the system to the students through a variety of means and media.

Evaluation: firstly establish what kind of learners are my students (VAK) and then use a variety of assessment strategies to evaluate the true extent of student learning, i.e. practice diaries, peer assessment and assessor observations.

Reflection: What evidence is there that a fretboard visualization approach improves performance standards and embeds music theory? What impact does self-directed learning have on the students' musical development?

Now that I had established the aim of the project, my next step was to contextualise some of the various learning theories into my Music Performance Techniques (MPT) class. The MPT class provided the ideal context in which to apply elements of social learning theory.

Social constructivism

Vygotsky (1971) suggests that during participation in the arts people bring their 'most intimate and personal aspects . . . into the circle of social life' (p. 249). One of the advantages of the Music Performance Techniques module is that I become involved in the students' music making as one of the musicians. By doing so, I become a stronger role model of an active performer. As the tutor or More Knowledgeable Other (MKO) I can work with the students to help them make music that is technically outside their current musical ability (Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development).

In the social constructivist's classroom, students create a community of learners where collective experiences create new meanings.

Gaston (1968) suggested that, "The power of music is most potent in the group." Gunsberg (1991) states that music can unify group members through rhythm and melody, and offer leadership opportunities to individuals.

Knowles et al. (1998) observed, 'On the one hand, experience can aid in learning if the new knowledge is presented so that it can be related to existing knowledge and mental models.

In a social constructivist environment, the responsibility of learning should reside increasingly with the learner (Glasersfeld, 1989). By encouraging the learner's free investigation within a given structure or composition, the constructivist music classroom can exemplify deep learning when students prepare questions, attain new knowledge by developing and implementing plans for investigating these questions, and reflect on the results. (Scott 2006)

More emphasis is placed on what they think and how they can apply these new musical skills to their own development as musicians.

This way the students play an active role in learning.

Students need to develop keen reflective thinking capabilities so they will be able to apply new knowledge to complex situations (Koszalka, Song, & Grabowski, 2001).

Bandura (1997) defined self-efficacy as "the belief in one's capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations" (p.2). The concept allowed me to support students in establishing a structured practice regime that would result in an outcome that had significant meaning for them. This made it possible for the learners to take control of their own learning and develop their own performance styles.

Scaffolding played an important role in this shift towards student autonomy. Three students expressed their reluctance to perform in front of their peers due to shyness and doubts about their own ability. When I reflected on the scaffolding theory, I contextualised it into a series of 'drilling' exercises (getting the students to repeat the parts slowly until they could play it well, at which point muscle memory has been established). The concept of 'drilling' correlates with elements of behaviourism or on a basic level, 'learning by rote'. Nonetheless, it is very effective in instrumental instruction. Most of my guitar students find practicing scales tedious but I always drew the analogy of a boxer skipping. The process not only serves as a warm-up exercises but it also gives the boxer the ability to move freely around the ring. As the learners abilities increased the level of support was and granting the learners more autonomy as their skills increase.

As a study by Gruson (1988) points out, it is in the practice room where, through solitary effort, the individual actually learns their craft.

Vygotsky believed that . . . to serve as an effective means . . . the experiment must provide maximum opportunity for the subject to engage in a variety of activities that can be observed, not just rigidly controlled. (pp. 11-12)

My group of learners

My students are aged between 17 and 19. They are all guitarists. The levels of ability vary; therefore, a differentiated approach must be adapted. An interesting point is the variety of musical tastes. Therefore I decided that whatever I teach them it should be non-genre specific. By highlighting the fact that scales, arpeggios and chords are relative to all genres from classical to metal; I wanted to engage the students in the music theory process. Very often, the mere mention of music theory can cause the music students to 'tune out'.

The application of social learning theory

Modelling is very useful music education. If we look at popular music culture in general, we find many examples of social learning. Many youths will try to emulate whatever genre they are interested in be it rap (baggy jeans) or metal (long hair). In this context, I decided to pick various musicians that all of my students admired and show them how the concept of fretboard visualization could apply to the performances of these artists.

It is important to apply a differentiated strategy to the learning process. By relying solely on handouts of sheet music and scale diagrams, kinaesthetic learners may struggle to grasp key concepts. Interestingly in Mind in Society, Vygotsky wrote, when a student is reading music and playing it on a piano, they develop finger dexterity and learn to strike the keys, but they are in no way involved in the essence of the music itself.

Research studies within the cognitive domain show that musical experiences positively affect cognitive development and higher intelligence quotients (Schellenberg, 2004).


Promoting the development of the students' self-efficacy focused on two areas: getting the students to physically being able to play with fluency and dexterity, and arriving at that point through a logical and structured practice routine. By developing and using a structured reflective practice routine, the students can 'take apart' and 'break down' the areas of their playing that needed most attention. The intended ancillary benefits of this approach are developments in tone production, rhythmic control and timing. All of which are integral to music students' development.

The application of mental visualisation techniques

Brooks, (1995) concluded that mental practice in combination with physical practice, for example, does typically yield superior performance results (Brooks, 1995). McCormick and McPherson (2003) concluded that whilst practice plays a fundamental part in the progress of a musician's ability to perform well, it should not be considered in isolation from motivational and interrelated variables. Their study of piano students found that those who did greater amounts of practice were more likely to rehearse music in their minds and make critical ongoing judgements concerning the success or otherwise of their efforts. This suggests that student musicians who are more cognitively engaged while practising not only tend to do more practice, but may also be more efficient with their learning.

The embedding of essential skills was achieved by the introduction of a visualisation techniques known as the CAGED system. The CAGED system is a method of fingerboard organisation used in one form or another by virtually all guitarists. (Ferguson 1999). The CAGED system provides the guitarist with a reliable method for finding their way around the neck, form by form. (Edwards 1989). Jazz guitarist Joe Pass was one of its greatest champions. It is a straightforward but effective system, which allows the player to visualize scales, arpeggios, and chords over the whole range of the fretboard. The idea is based on the relationship between common chord and scale shapes. It is also a very useful method for visualising chord tones across the neck of the guitar. The advantage of using fretboard visualisation techniques like the CAGED system is that it is easy for the students to see where they can go next. For example if they begin a musical sequence using the 'A' form, they can move up the neck of the guitar and use 'G' form or down the neck and use the 'C' form. This logical progression (C-A-G-E-D) allows the player to conceptualise their instrument in a new and meaningful way.

Essential skills

Music theory presents an ideal context in which to embed essential skills into the music education curriculum. The famous Greek Mathematician Pythagoras (who was also a musician) is quoted as saying, "There is geometry in the humming of the strings, and there is music in the spacing of the spheres." There is a very definite and specific relationship between music and mathematics, in particular to the perception of pitch and temperament. Musical analysis is often viewed in mathematical terms.

Essential skills were embedded into some of the assignments. They also formed an integral part of the learning process. Numeracy was constantly used to explain various aspects of theory such as triads and chord construction. The implementation of literacy skills took the form of identifying correct musical terminology to describe certain scenarios, e.g. glissando, staccato, mixolydian etc.

Collaborative learning.

The students were set a task where they had to develop a personalised application of the CAGED system. They then had to teach their new system to each other. This assignment was assessed by peer discussion and the results were recorded.

ILT use

Each student was asked to review several video about the CAGED system posted on

Each of these methods was evaluated using a variety of assessment startegies.

Project timeline

Week 1

Week 2

Week 3


Assessment strategies:

I found the following assessment strategies useful in addressing topics such as differentiation, VAK concerns and qualitative analysis.

Practical demonstrations by the students

Practice Diaries

Assessor observations.

Peer assessment



Theory tests

Recording performances

Initial/Diagnostic assessment

The purpose of the initial diagnostic assessment was to ascertain how much the students' knew about music theory. The results of the test gave me an indication of the level. I was then able to construct a revised strategy to address the appropriate learning outcomes.

The other aspect of this assessment took the form of a questionnaire to establish other information about the participants. By gathering information on age, experience and musical influences, I hoped to be able to structure the project in that provided meaning to each learner.

Formative assessment

Cowie and Bell (1999) defined the formative assessment as the bidirectional process between teacher and student to enhance recognize, and respond to the learning. This type of assessment allows students to take responsibility for their own learning and learn valuable lifelong skills such as self-evaluation, self-assessment, and goal setting.

At the beginning of the project, the students and I established a mutually agreed learning outcome...

Develop effective instrumental technique through a structured practice routine.

We then agreed a timeframe of two weeks (four classes) to learn a particular piece that highlighted the CAGED system. The assessment also addressed a variety of performance issues such as timing, chord theory, use of scales etc. The piece was broken down into small manageable sections and the majority of students were able to achieve the outcome. Throughout the process, the students also recorded entries in their practice diaries. This allowed them to reflect on areas of their performance that required particular attention.

Summative assessment

The Summative assessment or 'assessment of learning' was delivered in two ways.

1/ a final recording of the piece

2/ a reflective analysis by the learner summarising their learning experience

Boyce Tillman (2003) acknowledges the importance of summative assessments as, 'in the wider world of music-making musicians are often judged only by their product.'

Peer assessment

When I designed the assessments I wanted to incorporate as many of the key skills criteria as possible such as working with others, communication, problem solving and information technology.

The emotional impact of the performance was also factored in. Nzewi (2007) stated, 'Underneath the feelings that evoked by a piece of music are several other layers of understanding that can be penetrated.'

The process of music performance can be assessed in a variety of ways. The use of journals in assessing students' musical development remains a popular method., Evans (2002). In the performance diaries, the participants were asked to evaluate their issues about their instrumental skills and what they thought it was practical to accomplish by the project. Through the medium of a forum, the assessment criteria for performance were gradually developed, contextualised, and personalised into outcomes that the students wanted to achieve. i.e. better understanding of fretboard theory, refined technique, better tone etc

I collated student comments about the impact of self-directed learning throughout the course of the project. These comments were gathered from formal and informal student feedback, questionnaires and several discussions in which students described how elements of this learning-centred strategy had related to their own creative music-making process.

Peer assessment is a very effective way of evaluating the input that each member of the group makes. (Hunter and Russ, 1996; University of Ulster, 1995)

Analysis by McCormick and McPherson (2003) suggested that, 'in motivational terms...self-efficacy was the best predictor of actual performance.'

Successful musicians of all types are characterized by a desire to improve their performance and increase their skills, and there are many parallels in the rigour and focus of self-taught rock and classically trained student musicians. Successful musicians in both groups not only invest large amounts of time practising but also possess a deep desire to master their craft (Shehan-Campbell, 1995).

Peer review of assessment strategy:

In terms of peer review and feedback, I sought the advice of my course co-ordinator concerning the assignment brief. He suggested that my initial learning outcomes were too broad in scope and that I should revise some of the tasks. I concurred with his analysis and implemented the changes.

Data collection

Data collection methods for this action research included entries in student practice diaries, peer assessment forms, assessor observations and recorded performances.

Practice Diaries:

The maintenance of a practice diary included an assessment of learners' abilities at the beginning of the project, the setting of measurable targets for completion by the end of the project, and intervallic reviews of improvement against these goals. It was agreed that the diary format should remain open and a large degree of freedom would be afforded to the learner but the objectives should be 'Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Bound' (SMART).

Assessor Observations

The assessor observation records contained various pieces of information including the date the, a record of the learning outcomes observed and brief comments on the student's performance.

Peer review forms

The peer group were asked to complete a form recording brief comments about the student's recital.

Recorded Performances

The participants' performances were recorded at the beginning of the project. Various stages in the process were also recorded. Upon completion, each participant was recorded again. This process was self-evaluated, peer reviewed and feedback was provided by me. I used discretion when directing the students on technical matters. I was cautious not to try to stifle the learners' creativity. Vygotsky believed that . . . to serve as an effective means . . . the experiment must provide maximum opportunity for the subject to engage in a variety of activities that can be observed, not just rigidly controlled. (pp. 11-12). On this point, careful judgement was required for when deciding whether an eccentric or unorthodox approach was an engaging component of an individual style or a prospective problem that might encumber the musician's progress.

At the end of the project, I invited students to complete a questionnaire asking for their views on the impact the project. See appendix.


Key areas were identified...

Lack of understanding of scales, modes, chords and arpeggios.

Performance anxiety by some of the students.


A practical and written test at the conclusion of the project showed that the students' knowledge of these fundamentals had considerably increased.

Average score for initial assessment was 50%.

Average score for final assessment was 80%.

Practice diaries. The entries in the practice diaries were analysed and a comparison was drafted between the intended learning outcomes recorded by the student and the actual learning outcomes. The actual learning outcomes (what the learner actually achieved) were composed of the learner's self-evaluation, their peer review, and the assessor's observations. In most cases, there was some disparity between both elements. The learner's and the assessor agreed that in retrospect some of the targets set were too broad in their scope and too ambitious.

The success of self-directed learning?

Bandura's research (1997) has shown that a strong sense of personal efficacy is related to better health, higher accomplishment, and more social integration.

Lack of understanding of scales, modes, chords and arpeggios.


Information from the assessor observation reports was collated into the following conclusions...

Attendance remained consistent with most students

Increased student collaboration

Increase in questioning by students

Improved levels of attainment in target groups

More active listening observed

Lower ability performers became more motivated and engaged when they acquired the skills to improvise in an informal 'jam session' even though some had quietly expressed doubts about being able to 'take a solo' in front of their peers.

The findings highlighted the importance of providing visual, auditory and kinaesthetic opportunities for the students. Some students found the class handouts to be the most beneficial. However other students related that the web-based instructional videos were more helpful to them.

The questionnaire revealed higher levels of metacognition among the participants.

Increased levels of teacher skills and knowledge.

The students intimated that Music Performance classrooms have high standards of respect.

There was some disparity over the levels of efficacy.

Note: Some issues arose during the evaluation period due to the poor attendance of some students (mostly because of the adverse weather conditions at the time).

However, enough evidence was gathered to suggest that fretboard visualisation techniques are an entirely valid approach to guitar tuition.

Relationships, fun, flexibility, and a positive ethos; they offer safety, Clarity, challenge, responsibility, empowerment, independence and success.


The above findings highlight some interesting aspects of student attitudes to instrumental tuition and music theory. These issues are discussed below, with particular attention given to (a) the development of student selfing-directed learn; and (b) the impact on student learning.

The development of student self-efficacy

This project explored the learning strategies employed by guitar students in instrumental practising and their attitudes related to their own self-efficacy.

The results of this study imply that most of the students applied a variety of cognitive and metacognitive strategies during rehearsal. A study by Hallam (2001) found that professional musicians demonstrated extensive metacognitive skills and utilised a series of stratagems that they implemented in reaction to their requirements.

The results mean that student have the potential to advance their planned learning during instrumental practice.



The 1994 National Standards for Arts Education reiterated the need for 'diverse genres and styles of music' in the music curriculum (p. 3).

Recognized music education practice has historically been associated with teaching western art music. In the last 40 years, a swing toward incorporating a wider variety of music styles has brought about the use of many styles and idioms in the classroom.

The amalgamation of learning activities, assessment strategies, and reflective practices led to the development of both the students' abilities to learn independently and their musical skills.

A flexible curriculum approach to music education has the potential to enhance students learning experiences and provide them with the necessary communication and problem-solving skills to succeed in the industry. It is entirely plausible that this approach can facilitate both the artistic demands of music students and meet the requirements of DEL's Skills Strategy.

The essential skills of literacy and numeracy and ICT can be embedded into the music curriculum in a creative context.

Employability skills such the key skills of team working, problem solving can be developed through group performances, peer assessments and reflective analysis.

Work-based (occupational/sector) skills can be fostered through live performances. These performances can be incorporated into the assessment strategy. Working in studio sessions, gigs, group rehearsals and gigs will all contribute to the student gaining the authority of a seasoned performer and provide them with vital employability skills.

Ronan Guilfoyle, director of jazz at Newpark Music Centre in Dublin stated; 'Irish music education should aspire to at least encompass those elements of music training that are readily available to students in all other parts of Europe. Outside of the classical education system, jazz is by far the biggest force in music education today, yet Ireland is almost alone in Europe in not providing this option to Irish students at third level.'

DEL's Skills Strategy (2006) desires to the curricula in second and third level education incorporate enterprise and innovation; and an appreciation and understanding of entrepreneurship is embedded in the education system;

What is the difference between a musician and a park bench? A park bench can support a family.


Common themes arising from the discussions with teacher researchers were:

Increased levels of confidence, enjoyment and independence were noted in all the age groups

Levels of pupil participation in lessons increased

The potential of using Thinking for Learning strategies as assessment tools

To bring together the data from each of these sources, I have identified four main themes, shown in the table below with a record of the number of responses made to each.

A flexible approach to assessment strategies

Development of music theory

Pupil participation

Development of thinking skills

Improved performance standards

Reflective statement