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The Research Is In

The Necessity of Finding More Ways to Praise

Encouraging students is not enough, says a new study—you actually have to raise your ratio of praise to reprimands dramatically, and that might mean keeping track.

October 15, 2021
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Alex Nabaum / The iSpot

Are you keeping track of the praise you give out in a classroom? If not, it’s time to give it serious consideration, researchers assert in a new study. Being mindful of the actual ratio of praise to reprimands results in dramatic improvements in on-task behavior and grades, the study concludes—a finding echoed by previous work on “praise ratios” by experts at Vanderbilt University, who also recommend “6 praise statements every 15 minutes.” 

Creating a chart of encouraging language is odd. In most cases, praise is spontaneous and reactive, so it may feel too mechanical—or perhaps too fastidious—to audit how often you praise your students. But for professor of English education and former teacher Todd Finley, creating a praise checklist was game-changing, providing him with a structure to “reflect on what students have done or might do” to merit praise and a method to record the interactions to “spread the love evenly.”
 
In the study, researchers analyzed how often middle school teachers praised their students—exclaiming, “Good job, Andrew, on listening carefully during the lesson!” for example—compared with how often they reprimanded their students, and they discovered that the higher the ratio of praise to reprimands, the more likely students stayed focused and participated in the lesson. 

In classrooms with the highest ratio of praise to reprimands, on-task behavior increased by 60 to 70 percent, while disruptions were cut in half. 

The positive impact of praise was acutely felt by a small group of students with emotional and behavioral disorders. For these students, the difference between receiving zero praise and a one-to-one ratio of praise to reprimands was a full letter grade—moving from an average D grade to a C. Completely avoiding public reprimands and using a more positive, proactive approach had an even more dramatic impact, with these students achieving an average B grade in the classroom.

“As students get older, we often just expect that they’re going to be more mature and do what’s expected of them,” said lead author Paul Caldarella, a professor of education at Brigham Young University. “But they actually still need the same kind of reminders as elementary students. And any kind of negative comment made publicly to image-conscious teenagers, who are trying to establish their identity and peer relationships, is likely to make them shut down or get aggressive. So, it’s better to praise publicly and correct in private.”

Why Reprimands Don’t Work

Negative attention from a teacher—chiding students for not paying attention or threatening them with consequences, for example—rarely resulted in correcting misbehavior, Caldarella and his colleagues discovered. Instead, it led to more instances of off-task behavior, likely because students felt singled out and rebelled in response.

Middle school teachers tend to rely more heavily on corrective, punishment-based approaches to managing student behavior, the authors explain, a pattern that increases as students get older. To make matters worse, students of color and those with disabilities tend to receive harsher punishments than their peers, a worrying trend that’s been well documented in the research literature. As a result, “problems may emerge from a mismatch between classroom management practices and developmental needs of students, particularly adolescents’ increasing needs to be respected,” Caldarella explains in the study. 

Perhaps the biggest insight from the study is in tracing the way that praise aligns with our latest understanding of how adolescent brains work. As students reach their teens, they’re more likely to question authority figures, be skeptical about the way rules are applied, and test the boundaries of acceptable behavior—leading to distracting and off-task behavior that ultimately undermines “academic interest, motivation, and achievement,” according to the researchers. Teens are also exquisitely sensitive to the social contexts of learning, and both brain scans and electrical readings of stress levels reveal deep changes in the way they respond to peer pressure: Their status in the classroom, predictably, is directly linked to their willingness to engage. For teens, in particular, praise, not criticism, is the right tool for the occasion. 

Managing Your ‘Praise Ratio’

At the beginning of the study, the researchers observed a typical classroom and recorded about 6.5 reprimands for every instance of praise—a deficit that makes sense, given the strong instinct to correct nonproductive student behavior in real time. At that level of praise, the students were mildly but never deeply engaged, with on-task behaviors hovering around 40 percent. 

But as the ratio of praise to reprimands increased toward one to one, engagement and on-task behavior improved in a relatively linear fashion. Although “no ideal praise to reprimand threshold was found,” the researchers said—and the study does not specify an upper limit—teachers can expect on-task behavior “to reach approximately 60% in the absence of other interventions” as the praise to reprimand ratio approaches parity.

There are common-sense and research-backed reasons to be mindful of overpraising, of course. No student is always deserving of praise, and even students in elementary school can tell when praise is too lavish. When you use praise “for your own ends or even in a conscious attempt to help the student, it is likely to go wrong,” cautions Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia.

If the instinct to reprimand is powerful, though—and too much praise can backfire—then how can teachers find the right balance? Being intentional, even methodical, about the way language is deployed is a good first step. Finley came to the conclusion that auditing his public and private encouragement, and thinking deeply about the quality of his feedback, was worth the investment, and sixth-grade teacher Alyssa Nucaro arrived at a similar conclusion: “One of the hardest things I had to do was learn how to change my ‘teacher’ language so that I could encourage and empower students on a daily basis,” she confided in a blog post. In time, she realized that using highly supportive, productive teacher language simply takes “a lot of practice and awareness.”

A few more evidence-backed tips to calibrate your praise effectively:

  • Consider keeping a chart. Raise your praise ratio by recording yourself teaching or using charts or other forms of documentation. Keeping track also keeps you from overlooking certain students—particularly those who are marginalized, Caldarella explains. Keep a chart of who you’re praising to avoid inadvertently praising the same students over and over, and make an intentional effort to connect with and praise all students, especially those who may need extra academic and emotional support.
  • Praise in public, correct in private. Public reprimands can damage a student’s self-image, leading to more behavioral issues down the line, according to a 2016 study. While it may be necessary to correct misbehavior, doing so in front of a student’s peers may cause more harm than good and should be used sparingly.
  • Highlight specific actions. Saying “good job” is vague and doesn’t clearly identify the desired behaviors. “Describe the observed behavior and make a positive remark,” recommends Finley, adding that statements like, “You held the door open for your classmates on your own initiative, Savannah. Major props,” provide better guidance.
  • Avoid praising students for ability. Statements like “You’re so smart” or “You’re really good at math” can lead to a fixed mindset, reducing the likelihood that they’ll enroll in challenging courses while increasing the likelihood that they’ll cheat, according to a 2014 study. Labeling students as inherently smart can backfire, since students may feel compelled to cheat in order to preserve their image. 

The takeaway: The study is a reminder that we may be primed to overcorrect and underpraise, an imbalance that can make the difference between a productive classroom and a defiant one. While reprimands are sometimes unavoidable—and praise isn’t a panacea—working to raise the ratio of praise to reprimands is likely to improve student engagement and classroom productivity.

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