Practice planning and instrumental achievement
Norges musikkhøgskole, Oslo, Norway
Practising is an all-important part of instrumental study. Does this practising require some sort of planning? And, does some sort of practice planning improve the instrumental achievement of students in higher instrumental study? Considering practising as an activity directed by aims, it is highly relevant to ask how students plan, and the effects of planning on achievement.
It is important to distinguish between at least two levels of planning, or two domains of planning. One is the planning inherent in the formulation of performance aims and means during practising, and the development of mental representations for performance. This is a domain which has been shown a growing research interest (see Sloboda (1982), Gabrielsson (1999) for overview of research, and Nielsen (1999) and Sullivan and Cantwell (1999) for recent examples).
The other planning domain, where this study is based, is the overall planning of practice activities. By this I mean questions like the planning of how to co-ordinate practice sessions in relation to other study activities; when and how students plan their practice activities, why they plan etc. These are more global features of their practice planning, and they correspond to the planning activities carried out by teachers. That is why research teachers' planning activities and how teachers think about planning is relevant to this research project. There is, however, no research relating teachers' «achievements» to their planning behaviour. The only field of research where there are comparable research questions to my study, is studies in time management behaviours among college and university students. I will return to these in my concluding discussion.
Research on this global aspect of instrumental practice planning is mostly neglected. Two previous reports from the research project presented here have concentrated on different types of planning behaviour among higher instrumental students (Jørgensen (1997 a), and their time perspective in planning (Jørgensen 1997b). For professional musicians, there is a study by Hallam (1997), where their organisation of practice is part of the study.
There is, however, no previous study of the relationship between global aspects of practise planning and achievement.
The participants were students in an Academy of Music, in their four-year undergraduate program. They were enrolled in the instrumental, vocal and church music institutes. Planning behaviour was registered through a questionnaire. All questions were related to a «normal» study week or study period, excluding periods where examinations etc. may disturb their regular, usual type of behaviour.
Instrumental achievement was measured as their instrumental performance grade on their major instrument in their 2nd and 4th (final) year of study.
Grades are given from a five-point scale, where 1 is best and 5 is "fail". An examination concert is the context for giving the grade. All except one student in this study got a grade on one of the three highest levels. This leaves us for all practical purposes with three grade groups: The «excellent» (1); the «very good» (2); and the «acceptable» (3).
My research questions are:
The study has been carried out over several years, and some research questions have been replicated.
Coordination of practice with other study activities
On busy study days and study weeks, the students usually attend several classes and rehearsals. Most of these activities are on their weekly schedule, with fixed times for each of them, while some are not on this schedule, being organised more ad hoc. This leaves the time between the scheduled activities for practising, and the students have to coordinate their practice sessions in relation to their other study activities. The question to the students was related to the time perspective in this coordination: Did they include practice sessions in their week-plan, or did they coordinate practice sessions in relation to other activities at the beginning of each study day, taking one day at a time? Or did they fit them in during the course of the day, without any previous planning? When they answered, they had to choose the one which fitted best for their own behaviour. This posed a problem for some, who commented that their study weeks were so different, that they used all three alternatives over a period of time. The answers will, accordingly, reflect a form of forced choice for some students, but I will not conclude that this was a serious threat to the validity of the question.
Results from this part of the study are from 1991. The dominant type of coordination behaviour, for students from all the three institutes and all the four study years, is to plan the coordination at the beginning of each study day, taking one day at a time. This was the case for 58% of the instrumental students (N=78), 46% of the vocal students (N=11) and 41% of the organ (church music) students (N=17).
For students in their 2nd and 4th study year, there was a proportion of 10-15% in all the three grade groups who coordinated their practice sessions by including them in their work-plan. Then there is a difference between students with the lowest grade (3) and those with the two highest grades (1 and 2). Among the former, more than 50% fit in their practice session during the course of the day, while only 24-29% of the latter do that. The tendency is, accordingly, that the majority of students in the two highest grade groups coordinate their practice one day at a time, while the majority of students in grade group 3 fit in their practice sessions during the day, with no previous planning. The differences are not statistically significant with chi square (2nd study year: N=27, chi square=5.682, df=6, p=0.460; 4th year: N=23, chi square=4.246, df=4, p=0.374). My conclusion is that:
Time period for planning
When do students plan? Planning can be carried out at quite different points of time, before, during, and after practising. Are there differences between students in different grade groups in their utilisation of these time periods for planning? The five periods I concentrated on, were «before a practice day», «in the beginning of a practice session», «during practising», «shortly after practising», and «between practice days and practice sessions». The students were asked if they «always», «often», «sometimes», «seldom» or «never» used each of these time periods for planning.
This part of the study is based on information from the students in 1995 and 1996. For all students in the three institutes (N=109), 55% planned «always» or «often» before a practice day in 1995, with 28% «sometimes» and 17% «seldom» or «never».The distribution for planning in the beginning of a practise session was 76% with «always» or «often», 13% «sometimes» and 11% «seldom» or «never». 50% planned «always» or «often» during practising, with 30% «sometimes» and 21% «seldom» or «never». Shortly after practising 24% planned «always» or «often», with 31% «sometimes» and 45% «seldom» or «never». And between practice days and practice sessions 34% planned «always» or «often», 33% «sometimes» and 34% «seldom» or «never». We can see that the different time periods had different popularity value with the students, with planning immediately before a practice session as the most popular period for planning, and the period immediately after practice sessions as the least popular. The distribution in 1996 was very similar.
The analysis was carried out with information from the two different student populations (1995 and 1996), each of them with students getting a grade in their 2nd study year, and others getting a grade in their 4th and final year. This established four groups for analysis for each of the five practice behaviours. Based on chi square analysis of differences between the grade groups in each of the four analysis groups, I got the following results (with p-values from the four groups):
Students in the three grade groups did not differ significantly in their tendency to plan:
Time perspective in planning practice on repertory and exercises
In their daily practice, the music the students are playing is mainly in one of two categories: Repertory or technical exercises. The division of «playing content» in these two distinct categories is not without validity problems. Practising on repertory will often include some technical exercises, and there is also repertory that can be classified as exercises.
The students were asked about their time perspective in planning practising on three types of repertory: Repertory they had not played before, which they now wanted to play; repertory that was previously rehearsed, and which they now wanted to take up again («repeat»); and repertory that was under rehearsal. The two types of technical exercises were: General exercises, not directly related to their current repertory; and exercises related to and intended to face special problems in their current repertory. I have no information that enables me to question the validity of this distinction.
The time perspectives were: Planning from one day to the next one; for approximately one week in advance, for something between one week and a month in advance, and one month or more in advance.
Information for this part of the study is from 1991. A summary of the distribution of responses in the «from one day to the next one» will illustrate the use of different time perspectives towards the planning of these types of musical content: 15% made decisions to start to play repertory they had not played on a day to day basis, while 47% used this time perspective to plan to play repertory that was previously rehearsed, and which they now wanted to take up again («repeat»); 56% planned in relation to repertory that was under rehearsal on a day to day basis, 65% made decisions on general technical exercises from day to day, and 76% made decisions on exercises related to and intended to face special problems in their current repertory from day to day.
The analysis was carried out with students in their 2nd (N=27) and 4th year (N=23). Based on chi square analysis of differences between the grade groups in each of the two analysis groups, I got the following results (with p-values from the two groups):
Students in the three grade groups did not differ significantly in their time perspective when planning:
Systematic planning and instrumental achievement
It is reasonable to believe that students differ in how they use planning, from those who use planning in a daily and systematic way, to those who have no system or regularity in their planning activity. Interviewing a group of 22 professional musicians, Hallam concluded that there was considerable variability in the degree of organisation reported. Five (23%) of the musicians reported that they were very well organised, ten (45%) reported being "moderately organised" in their practice, and seven (32%) "perceived that they had a lack of "natural" organisation, some developing strategies for coping with this, e.g. drawing up practice schedules, setting specific objectives for each practice session." (Hallam, 1997, p. 97).
In my research project, 259 students in two different student populations were asked: «Do you regard yourself as a person who uses practice planning in a systematic way?». The answers were approximately normally distributed, with 5% saying that they regarded themselves as «very systematic planner», 20% were «very systematic to average systematic», 50% were «average systematic», 18% were to «average systematic to very unsystematic planner», and 7% were to «very unsystematic planner». My research question was now: Do students in different grade groups differ in respect to systematic planning?
Looking at the three different grade groups in each of the four analysis groups (see above), the main conclusion is that:
The main result may seem surprising: There seems to be no systematic and statistically significant difference between students with different grades regarding several types of practise planning behaviour.
Since this result is from an explorative project in a field with no previous research, we have to look at research on other students' planning behaviour, outside music, for a comparison and discussion. Even here the research activity is very small, but there are some studies about students' time management behaviours and their academic performance. Macan et. al. (1990) developed a «Time Management Behavior Scale», based on «tips, ideas, and techniques repeated throughout several how-to books on time management» (op.cit. 761). When they related the students 'grade point average' with the overall score on the scale, the correlation was 0.23. Correlations between grade point average and the four factors were: «Setting goals and priorities», 0.10; «Mechanics - Planning - Scheduling», 0.20; «Perceived control of time», 0.22; and «Preference for disorganization», 0.17. All correlations are positive, indicating a positive relationship between certain types of planning behaviour and academic achievement. The values are, however, so small that their main message is that this relationship is negligible.
Britton and Tesser (1991) developed a time-management questionnaire with 35 items, each answered on a 5-point scale. Their theory was derived from research in computer-operating systems, and based on the supposition that the information-processing resources of college students is managed by some mental system analogous to the time-management component of a computer's operating system. They used «cumulative grade point averages» over all four college years as a dependent measure, and developed three factors in the questionnaire. The correlation between grade points and the three factors were: For «Short-range planning», 0.25; for «Time attitudes» it was 0.39; and for «Long-range planning» -0.10. The first and last of these correlations are negligibly low, while the «time attitude» factor shows a positive and sufficiently high correlation to be of interest. I will return to this factor.
A third study, by Trueman and Hartley (1996), is also relevant for my discussion. They used a shortened version of Britton and Tesser's scale on students in psychology in a British university. The correlation between academic performance (on first year examination) and the whole scale was 0.15, between academic performance and «Daily plan» it was 0.04; and between academic performance and «Confidence in long-term planning» it was 0.19. All of them negligibly small.
These three research efforts from study contexts other than instrumental music, in my view, support my own conclusion: There is no general and systematic relationship between certain types of planning activity and academic achievement. Even if there are several limitations in my research and in the three reported studies in time management, both in measures of dependent and independent variables, and possible neglect for important aspects of planning, the low correlations in the time-management studies among college and university students, and the non-significant differences between achievement groups in practise planning behaviour among the instrumental students, suggest that there is no general and strong relationship between planning and achievement, relevant for all students. The most important result from the time management studies is the suggestion given by the «Time attitudes» factor in the Britton and Tesser study. This factor suggests that for many of the students, it is more important how they experience their own control (or lack of control) over their study time, than how they manage and plan the distribution and use of this time.
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Trueman, M. and Hartley, J. (1996). A comparison between the time-management skills and academic performance of mature and traditional-entry university students. Higher Education, 32, 199-215.
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