Achievement, Assessment and Motivation

Supporting Educators • Promoting Learning

With a single Tweet, the exam board ABRSM have in the last week provoked what they have themselves described as a “passionate debate”.

Defending their stance, ABRSM confirmed that these are the words of their Chief Examiner, John Holmes, quoted from a presentation at an event in London. In the context of his talk, Holmes will no doubt have made many other points, adding balance and nuance to his position.

That said, his view of a “virtuous circle of motivation” was surely not made up on the spot. We must accept this as his well-rehearsed position on the nature of and relationship between musical achievement, assessment and intrinsic motivation.

Discussion of these important concepts must be welcomed. As teachers it is our basic responsibility to question ideas, absorb good material, develop subject knowledge and promote better understanding. These issues are of course also of interest and importance to the parents of any child learning to sing or play a musical instrument.

Together, let’s begin to unpack some of the many positive ways that we can all celebrate our childrens’ and our own adult achievements.

The “Virtuous Circle”

The “virtuous circle of motivation” has, according to ABRSM, three complementary and mutually strengthening elements:

  1. Musical Achievement
  2. Testing / Assessment
  3. Intrinsic Motivation

It is clearly important for us all to consider ABRSM’s outlook seriously and carefully; the more so, given the swift and uniform pushback they have received after publishing their views, from successful performers, academics, teachers, and community musicians: more than 600 responses on Twitter, and hundreds more elsewhere.

Like most, I recognise ABRSM as global experts in music assessment. That said, it is clear that a very significant number of hugely successful musicians and teachers fundamentally and passionately disagree with their definition of musical achievement.

Take, for example the pianist Leslie Howard, indisputably one of the world’s finest and most successful classical artists, who described the ABRSM tweet as a “vomit-inducing mission statement”. Crikey!

Decades of research into the psychology of intrinsic motivation suggest ABRSM are quite wrong about that, too. In fact, it will be instructive to break into their “virtuous circle of motivation” with a look at that specific point first…


In my article The Pianist’s Motivations I have previously explored the crucial difference between extrinsic (reward-based) motivation and intrinsic (from within) motivation. Exams are regarded as extrinsic motivators, prompted by reward/punishment rather than from within.

There is evidence that reliance on extrinsic motivators such as exams can trigger the overjustificaion effect, undermining the development of intrinsic motivation. So it seems that going from one grade to the next is unlikely to generate a love of music.

Furthermore, research suggests that motivation grows best when students are given a rationale that is communicated in an autonomy-supportive way. Give students a positive reason to learn something, with intrinsic benefits for them, and they will be far more motivated than if they regard their learning as preparation for an exam.

This is the exact opposite of many people’s expectations. Parents often believe that if their child is entered for the next grade, it will provide motivation for them to practise and make better progress. And in the short term, this may well be true. For one thing, the fear of failure can promote hard work, even if it brings us no real happiness!

Some adult learners also look to the grade exams as a motivating goal. Here again, enthusiasm for the grades may often be based on assumptions that the exam will be a positive experience, with useful and relevant content, balanced feedback and affirmative results. But these assumptions may be misplaced.

As far back as the 1980’s, Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan demonstrated that a sense of competence and intrinsic motivation are decisively boosted when we receive positive feedback. It turns out that the words “Well Done!” have tremendous power.

Importantly, further research by Robert J. Vallerand and Greg Reid has shown that negative feedback can decisively undermine intrinsic motivation.

Applied in the ABRSM exam context, this is cause for genuine concern. Several examiners and insiders have told me that ABRSM (and some other exam boards) discourage examiners from using the words “Well Done” in their comments, and that even when awarding a Distinction they are required to explain each mark lost.

There’s a dangerously cold logic at work here. If true, examiner comments are being deliberately weighted and predisposed towards the negative, thus systemically undermining intrinsic motivation. No wonder so many learners who follow the graded exam route give up.

Research into the psychology of motivation is ongoing, but based on the current balance of findings:
• ARBSM’s claim that assessments “give us intrinsic motivation” would seem to be extremely misleading.
• An over-reliance on grade exams in motivating students may well harm their long-term love of music.
• Negative feedback given on exam marking sheets can damage enthusiasm for music-making, particularly if the criticisms are not supported by advice on how to improve.
• Positive feedback in any context can foster intrinsic motivation, regardless who it is given by.

Musical Achievement

ABRSM’s definition of musical achievement has been roundly condemned by hundreds of professionals, and has caused dismay and even anger across the whole sector.

Their tweet was also for many a “trigger”, rekindling memories of traumatic exam experiences. How sad to read the many accounts of those whose musical development was unnecessarily blighted, undoubtedly against teachers’ and parents’ best intentions.

What, then, is Musical Achievement?

Here are just a few aspects of musical achievement that top musicians have offered up publicly in response to ABRSM:

“Music allows us to tap into our deepest emotions and help an audience do the same. It allows young people to gain heightened emotional maturity and excel outside of academic structures. It’s deeply personal and helps to make us better people. It’s not about getting a distinction.”

Anna Lapwood
Presenter, BBC Young Musician of the Year
Director of Music at Pembroke College, Cambridge

“Musical achievement is about expression, creativity, communication, analysis, sensitivity etc and NEVER about how good you are.”

Benjamin P Jackson, composer and teacher

“Curiosity, playfulness, joy, self-expression, teamwork, communication, individuality, insight, a discerning ear…”

Rolf Hind, concert pianist, composer and recording artist.

“I gain a huge sense of achievement getting dementia patients in care homes to connect with my music, sing along, and be “present” for a short while.”

Tom Carradine, pianist and MD

“Musical achievement is about connection and communication, personal fulfilment, enjoyment … this leads to greater motivation and self-determination.”

Frances Wilson, writer and pianist

“Musical achievement might be about something that can’t be assessed. Such as making something new, or discovering something about one’s own unique musical personality and artistic spirit.”

Julian Rowlands, bandoneonist, composer and arranger

“Musical achievement is the emotional satisfaction felt when looking back and realising how much you’ve developed and deepened your musicianship over that period. It’s a private triumph about what you can now do, validated by others’ observations. It’s not a certificate.”

Alex Aitken, West End MD, pianist, conductor, educator

“There’s something about ABRSM’s dogma of individuated “achievement” that is profoundly unmusical. Don’t we make music together? Why train musicians to be lonely and miserable show ponies?”

Edward Henderson, professional composer

“I’m a counsellor and many of my clients are musicians and composers. I’ve spent quite a lot of time with people who are trying to work through the consequences of this awful legacy of perfectionism. I’m surprised [ABRSM] would tweet something so unhelpful and damaging.”

Richard Whitelaw, professional therapist

To summarise, musical achievement can be experienced in many and varied ways, from singing in the bath to performing in the Carnegie Hall. Our experiences of it are wonderfully personal, subjective, and rather difficult to summarise in a Tweet.

Musical achievement is certainly not simply a question of “how good you can get”, in an individuated, competitive and solitary way. Bringing joy to others, communicating with expression, and being enriched by positive shared experiences are regarded as hugely significant achievements by most musicians.

• ABRSM’s view of what constitutes musical achievement is strongly rejected by many across the music profession.
• Musical achievement can be described in far more positive ways that accord with the experiences of the best musicians.


If ABRSM’s view of musical achievement is so wide of the mark, and their understanding of motivation so at odds with research, where does that leave the central pivot of the Chief Examiner’s argument: assessment?

Clearly not all of the hallmarks of musical achievement can be assessed in an exam room, or from a video. But some certainly can. Many of my own students have found ABRSM exams a useful and positive experience in the past, although it is worth noting that I have used them in the context of a broader education, and taking care not to overemphasise their importance.

At present however, ABRSM’s prescriptive syllabus requirements and negative commenting bias militate against them giving a more rounded, helpful assessment of musical achievement. And the overall ABRSM experience appears to have got noticeably more negative of late, which is a cause for real concern.

In my post ABRSM’s Performance Grades, I suggest a positive alternative which offers a more respectful, appropriate and fundamentally inclusive approach. Moving the prescriptive supporting tests out of the exam room and into the teaching studio and practise room could make the exams themselves less all-encompassing. A more limited scope could actually be a far more useful, inclusive and positive one.

Alongside this, I believe that ABRSM need to reconsider the way they give feedback to candidates. Their wonderful panel of examiners, many of whom seem restless under the present regime, should in my view be set free to share their considerable musical insights and experience in ways which better support learning, so motivating players more positively and effectively.

And alongside reforming the graded exams, I have no doubt at all that we should more consciously be celebrating those musical achievements which exams don’t provide a summative assessment of. Can we as parents and teachers look for more opportunity to recognise and celebrate musical achievements with constructive praise that genuinely fosters motivation?

Extrinsic factors are a reality of life, and a feature of public performance. Exams certainly have a role in education, but we sorely need to reconsider the place and importance we give them. And it is we teachers who need to be the ones driving change and bringing positive transformation.

• Expert assessment of musical performance with constructive praise and supportive feedback can be helpful and instructive.
• It is time for teachers to take a more proactive stand and push for positive transformation in music education.
• There are many more contexts in which we can learn to regularly celebrate musical achievement in all its wonderment, thus fostering a lasting intrinsic motivation and love for music.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.