Teaching Strategies

Making Sure Your Praise Is Effective

Research-backed ideas on how to give meaningful praise to inspire and reinforce positive behavior.

November 22, 2017
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On-task comportment, engagement, effort, and participation—praise enhances them all. Even the most challenging behaviors yield to praise, according to many studies. Maybe, like me, you’ve experienced how praise alters the consciousness of both the giver and receiver.

I was teaching a class of struggling seniors in summer school a decade ago when Michael—a good-natured C- student and chronic loafer—read his journal entry aloud. It revealed an unprecedented level of wisdom.

“That gave me goosebumps, Michael,” I said.

Ten minutes later, Michael interrupted the lesson. “You really thought my writing was that good?” he asked.

“Absolutely. Do you want me to call your mom and tell her about it?”

“You mean it? Yeah.”

I phoned his mom that afternoon and described his writing. “With those skills, Michael is really going places. You must treasure him.” There was silence on the other end of the line, followed by the unmistakable sound of a mother crying.

Six years later, I ran into Michael in a university computer lab, and his eyes lit up. He told me that his mother would be attending his graduation that spring from an educational psychology master’s program. When he thanked me for inspiring him, I marveled at how a few simple words on a summer day elevated every subsequent interaction I had with Michael.

The general tenets of praise are understood by most educators. We know from experts like cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham that to motivate children, praise should be:

  • Perceived as sincere, earned, and truthful
  • Specific
  • Not directive (Here’s an example of directive praise: “Good writing! Write that legibly every day.”)
  • Focused on process, not ability
  • Immediate
  • Unexpected

What else do decades of research on classroom praise tell us?

Differentiating Praise

All kids need praise, but they don’t all need the same kind. While results differ depending on the nationality of the child, a 2001 study by Paul C. Burnett showed that young students often appreciate being complimented publicly, while adolescents “prefer private praise.” Likewise, a 2016 survey conducted by the University of Massachusetts Amherst revealed that 73 percent of students ranked “quiet verbal praise” as a “top 3” instructor response. When combined with praise, rewards like treats and prizes are a stronger reinforcer of positive behavior for some students than praise alone, according to the Amherst researchers.

Be Specific

Instead of using general compliments (“Good job!”), which underwhelm students, try some of these literature-recommended alternatives:  

  • Compliment students with an “I-statement” to communicate sincere appreciation, suggest the authors of Inspiring Active Learning. Example: “I always look forward to hearing what you have to say, Shalonda.” I-statements work best when the praise eschews hyperbole.
  • Use evidence-based behavior-specific praise (BSP). Describe the observed behavior and make a positive remark. Example: “You held the door open for your classmates on your own initiative, Savannah. Major props.” Vanderbilt University recommends a 4:1 ratio of BSP to reprimand and “six praise statements every 15 minutes.”
  • Effective praise” specifically describes positive behaviors and explains why they are important. Example: “Asking thoughtful questions shows us you’re listening to peers, and listening is the secret of awesome communication.”
  • Reinforcing processes used by kids to achieve academic success can be achieved through “descriptive feedback and open-ended questions” that cue learners to reflect. Example: “Jamal, your classmates were really focused on you as you presented. What do you think you did to grab everyone’s attention?”

To determine kids’ praise and reward preferences, survey your classes at the beginning of the school year. Ask if they prefer receiving acknowledgements via private or public oral communication. Personal notes or notes home? Create a list of rewards and ask the class to identify their top three choices. Discovering what reinforces pro-academic dispositions with your students is worth the effort.

Sincere Praise Versus Super-Astounding, Astonishing, Spectacular, and Phenomenal Hype

While young children respond well to regular and effusive praise, a 1987 study suggests that students in late elementary school and higher grades are able to discern when compliments are overly laudatory. In fact, inflated compliments can actually degrade student effort. After receiving hyped-up praise, children with low self-esteem feel pressured to master work above their perceived abilities and subsequently withdraw from challenges, according to a 2014 study. For maximum rhetorical effect, combine good will with sincerity.

Go Pro With These Praise Tips

Keep a checklist: Before class starts, plan to praise a specific number of students. Reflect on what those students have done or might do that you can comment on. Then chart who you’ve praised so you can spread the love evenly.

Target specific academic behaviors: Jim Wright, of Intervention Central, lists several academic dispositions that can be reinforced through praise, including effort, accuracy, fluency, goal-setting, and meeting an external standard. As an example, Wright describes how to encourage effort: “You wrote nonstop through the entire writing period. I appreciate your hard work.”

Encourage student-to-student praise: The 2016 Amherst study found that students appreciate praise from classmates, but strongly prefer gestures like high-fives instead of verbal compliments from fellow learners. Be careful not to substitute peer compliments for instructor praise. Students actually value teacher praise more than accolades from peers, according to the study.

Go slow: Talking slowly calms anxious children and helps them bond with adults, writes Dr. Marilyn Price-Mitchell. Slow and articulate compliments also resonate more than rushed praise. Example: “Sam, at dinner tonight, ask this question: ‘Guess who broke third grade’s multiplication record?’ Then point to yourself.”

Finally, dozens of studies support one simple truth: Replacing reactive admonishments with strategic praise, day after day, is the most effective way for words to motivate students.

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