Tips on Writing Student Reports

It’s that time of year again when I have to write reports for my students. Lucky for me, I don’t have to write the 55 or so required by the drum teacher. I’m sure I’m not alone in acknowledging that report writing is arduous. We see our students every week, they’re getting weekly feedback from us, surely they know how they’re going?

Bzzzz – nah, correct answer to the wrong question.

Remember, the reports are for the parents not the student. Another way to think of it is that we’re writing a report for the bill payer. This is your chance, as teacher, to show them that their hard earned investment into their son or daughter’s musical education is reaping rewards. That means we have to write the tutor’s comment as if we’re addressing the parent, not the student. Sure, the student is going to read it too, but it should be worded for the parent (the one paying the bills and is a stakeholder in the child’s success).

At this point we have an out clause. If your student is an adult student, I don’t bother writing a report. For me it just seems weird evaluating them on paper when frank face to face evaluation is a purer form of communication. Following the above advice would make them feel like they’re referring to themselves in the third person. Yikes.

So what makes a good report, and what do you write after teaching a student for 4 years and you feel like you’re just repeating yourself. Normally a school will have their own template to follow. Usually there are some ‘canned’ entries to complete, but this write up is tailored specifically to the all important tutor’s comment.

The importance of a detailed tutor’s comment

Lessons are expensive so the least we, as teachers, can do is take the time to write a detailed comment about the progress of a student.

In fact, for many parents, a report is unfortunately the only feedback they’re going to get on their child. Many parents don’t come in to pick up their children, so face to face conversation is rare, and when ringing up parents, you’re likely to always speak to the nominated parent (I find it’s often the mother). In fact, sometimes with families from non English speaking backgrounds, I’m always speaking to the child so the parent doesn’t even factor in at all!

The report is for the student too

Despite the parent being the primary recipient of the report, it’s inevitable that the student is going to read it too. Emphasise the positives so that the student does’t feel despondent. I’ve had a parent thank me for writing the report in such a way that uplifted the child’s spirits because they’d reached a stage where things suddenly got quite challenging. Remember, the comments and ‘tick the box’ styled reporting is about the student’s relative progress. In some ways the report is comparing the student with themselves from 6 months ago.

Basic Structure of a tutor’s comment

I like to follow a structure similar to the following.

  • General comment about progress. (the introduction)
  • Make a mention on some notable improvements in regards to tone, technique, rhythm etc. (the positive)
  • State something that the student needs to work on. Even advanced students can improve on something. (the negative)
  • Maybe add a mention about potential future goals such as a performance, band participation or an exam. (the encouragement/goal setter)

Things to mention

Here is a list of potential topics worthy of mention. One can’t use them all, but if you’re short of ideas, here’s a list. Note that it’s more important to state how much the student has improved, more so than their actual ability.

  • Progress – Notes learnt. How many pieces covered, scales conquered etc.
  • Tone Quality – such as volume, intonation (tuning), embouchure, tone colour and evenness
  • Technique – the ability for the student to get their fingers in the right place.
  • Rhythm – The ability to interpret pulse and read all that notes that fall in and between (refer to this previous article)
  • Sight reading – The ability of the student to read new music successfully with relatively few attempts.
  • Notable achievements – Mention things like exams, performances
  • If they’re not already, make a mention that the student should join the school band the following term/year, or perhaps sit an exam.

Make sure you spell correctly

You’re a professional, so make sure your spelling is flawless. As a New Zealander using British style English, the gotcha word is definitely practice/practice. Remember, for us not in the US, practice is the noun and practise is the verb. So…

John needs to practise more.

Sarah has been practising a lot more recently.

…where to practise is the verb.

Jim has not done enough regular practice.

…where practice is the noun. There are more examples here. Hint: If you can force ‘the’ before the word practice, then it’s a noun.

If you’re from the U.S, lucky you, it’s practice with a c, always.

While on the topic of spelling, did you know that rhythm is one of the 100 most commonly misspelt words in the English language? Apparently is originates from Greek, further confirming that English really is the sponge language of the world.

Always write by hand

It might feel old fashioned, but a hand written tutor’s comment looks way more authentic than a typed one. At one place I taught, one of the brass teachers had cleverly created a word document template that he could complete digitally, then print directly onto the official report papers. It looked great, but it had this generic feel like an insurance company sending you a letter stating that you’re a valued customer and why they think you deserve a bonus discount on your premiums.

At least the student’s report was signed with a pen.

Nothing speaks effort like a well thought out handwriting letter. Just remember though, we’re music teachers, not doctors, so the handwriting has to be legible.

That feeling of repeating yourself

After teaching the same student for 3 years, there’s a chance that if one were to look at all 6 of their reports, they might all look the same. Whoops. This might be a bad look.

To remedy this I like to keep a historical record of the tutor comments that I make for each student just to make sure that I’m offering something new. If it’s more of the same, then at least make sure that it doesn’t look like a carbon copy.

By doing this, you can utilise some ideas for phrasing/wording from your record of historic tutor comments. Even better, by doing this record keeping, you’ve essentially made a draft copy before writing the report out proper.

Comments for the experienced student

Some students are pretty good, but there’s always something they can improve on. My favourites are articulation and phrasing. This observation is more applicable to wind players, but you know when the student plays everything ‘correct’ but there for some reason there is this different between the way you play (as teacher) compared to the student. That’s the air control. The biggest difference between and very good wind player and a fantastic player is the ability to shape phrasing by controlling air flow without diminishing tone. Add in a bit of tonguing variation into the mix, and you have articulation.

That is what the advanced student will always be able to improve on in the coming months.

Summary

To sum it all up: Write that tutor’s comment by hand, mention the student’s progress, good points, places to improve and some goals for the following six months. Don’t forget to spell rhythm correctly.

If you have further insight into what makes a good student report, feel free to contribute in the comments.

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