Student Engagement

The Right Kind of Praise Can Spur Student Growth

Research shows that when adults calibrate their praise by following a few simple rules, students take more academic risks and are inspired to continue learning.

September 25, 2020
Carpe Diem / Alamy Stock Photo

The self-esteem movement of the 1970s drilled into adults the notion that positive feedback like “Great job” and “You're so smart” was crucial if you wanted children to grow up to be confident, successful adults, writes Paul L. Underwood for The New York Times.

But haphazard, inflated praise can have unintended consequences. When adults praise the outcome (“It’s beautiful!”) or the inherent qualities of the person (“You’re so amazing!”), it can set an impossibly high bar and backfire, reducing a child’s motivation to take on tough challenges in the future that lead to growth. Praise that’s overly effusive meanwhile, like “That’s the best penmanship ever!”, can make kids too reliant on extravagant feedback to motivate them. According to research by author and Stanford Graduate School of Education professor of psychology Carol S. Dweck, praise that falls into these categories can feel controlling, produce anxiety about potential failure, and erode the pleasure children take in an activity: “[Dweck’s] research showed that children felt pressured to live up to their parents’ praise, and this in turn could lead to panic and anxiety,” Underwood writes. “Even kids who didn’t experience anxiety became risk-averse, developing what Dr. Dweck later termed a ‘fixed mind-set.’”

When adults deliver praise that’s carefully calibrated to be meaningful, measured, and specific—and avoids character or talent assessment—the research shows that kids respond by focusing on the pleasure they take in the activity. And when it’s delivered in a way that inspires curiosity and exploration, praise inspires children: it arms them with confidence to continue to push boundaries in their learning.

Understanding how to calibrate praise is an important tool for engaging and motivating students. When used successfully, praise can not only improve kids’ attitudes toward learning by building confidence and engagement, but also help offset behavior challenges.

Praise the Process

In a 1998 study, Dweck found that children who were praised for working hard were more motivated to take on challenging problems, became more confident in their abilities, and enjoyed solving problems more than children who were praised for being smart. When kids receive praise that’s focused on their efforts, it boosts their sense of agency. When you say: “Wow, it looks like you really enjoyed your coloring!” for example, you’re highlighting the student’s personal reasons for engaging in an activity.

In contrast, research by Jennifer Henderlong Corpus, a professor of psychology at Reed College, and Kayla A. Good, a Ph.D candidate at Stanford, shows that when praise is rooted in the assessment of innate traits, like intelligence, rather than on choice—choosing to be persistent, for instance—kids feel frustrated and undermined.

Praising effort, however, requires keeping tabs on the path the child takes with a project. “To provide meaningful process praise, you have to pay attention to the process itself,” writes Underwood. It’s not necessary to praise mid-stream; it’s OK to wait until a child has finished a task. Try engaging students by asking about their process with questions like: “Tell me how you arrived at that word choice,” or “You took an interesting path to arrive at that answer. What was it?” Your curiosity about a student’s process will “encourage the child to ask him or herself those same questions, sparking curiosity and exploration,” Underwood notes, which in turn allows kids to “evaluate themselves, rather than have an external evaluation.”

Be Measured in Your Praise

When adults overpraise, kids can become overly focused on gaining approval, something Corpus and Good call “praise addiction”—a compulsion to perform merely to gain approval. At the same time, students have powerful radar when it comes to fake praise, and when they detect it, it undermines credibility and trust in the classroom.

Moreover, differentiating praise is important and depending on the student, some forms of praise work better than others: research shows that young students appreciate public praise, while adolescents prefer quiet or even private approval, and praise paired with rewards—a handwritten note from you, for example, or a special solo trip to the library to choose a book can be a strong  reinforcer of positive behavior.

Avoid Comparing Students or Student Work

When adults create a sense of rivalry by casually comparing classmates’ work, for example, it can be similarly counterproductive. Corpus and Good’s research indicates that among young children, comparison doesn’t serve as a motivator. “Praising children for normative superiority may send the message that personal competence is measured by outperforming peers, rather than skill development,” noted a 2005 study co-authored by Corpus. “This message is harmful when children are in situations that lead them to doubt their ability.”

Practice Descriptive Praise

Praise, notes Underwood, is highly effective when it’s delivered as “descriptive feedback,” a concept introduced by authors Adele Farber and Elaine Mazlish in their seminal 1980 book, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. In the classroom, you might say: “I noticed that you colored the sun blue,” or “I saw that you included a quote from Martin Luther King.” The goal is to invite a conversation with the student, encourage them to reflect on their own process, find joy in it, and take bigger creative risks that deepen learning.

Breaking It Down

It can sound like a minefield, but you can boil the guidance on praise down into a few key rules: Try to be measured and intentional in your praise-giving. Avoid extravagant praise and superlatives (“That’s amazing/incredible” or “That’s the best work I’ve seen” or “You’re just so smart”) for more moderate, process-oriented, descriptive praise (“Wow, you made good progress there” or “I like what you did by including that quote” or “This is a real improvement from your first draft”). The goal here is not to stop encouraging; it’s to encourage in a way that leaves plenty of room for future growth and promotes productive academic risk-taking.

When praise is administered strategically and consistently, writes educator Todd Finley, all the research points to it being “the most effective way for words to motivate students.” So as you adapt your approach to giving students praise, you might consider keeping yourself on track by creating a checklist: before each class, set a benchmark for the number of students you want to praise, list what you want to reinforce—effort, accuracy, fluency, or goal-setting, for example—and maybe even create a chart for yourself to track the students you’ve praised so you’re sure to spread praise out evenly. 

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