Using Praise Effectively

Teacher Helping Boy With SchoolworkTeachers use praise to reward students and to motivate them. But according to Ted Thompson, Department of Psychology, University of Tasmania, Australia, research shows that praise can lower students’ motivation and make them question their academic ability, if they lack self-confidence.

Classroom research demonstrates the effect different kinds of teacher feedback has on students’ assumptions about their ability. Students and teachers both believe that praise is associated with high effort and blame with lack of effort. Students who receive unsolicited sympathy from a teacher following a poor performance usually assume that they have less ability than students who do not receive sympathy.

Students who receive neutral feedback after success but who are criticized after failure are seen as more able than students who are praised after success but given neutral feedback after failure. Excessive praise, or praise for an easy task, also leads students to believe that a teacher holds a low estimate of their ability.

Research reveals that there are gender differences in the way children respond to failure. Girls tend to attribute failure to low ability, while boys tend to attribute their failures to external factors such as inappropriate teacher attitudes, or to insufficient effort, while attributing their successes to ability.

Low-achieving students and students with little self-confidence are often uncertain about why they succeed or fail. Praise is productive when it gives information about a performance to students: “You were the only person to correctly interpret the results.” Such task-based praise tells students why they succeeded and has a positive effect on future efforts.

But praise that attempts to direct or control students in some way can threaten students by imposing outside pressure for future performances, thereby pre-empting intrinsic motivation: “If you submit another paper like that, you’ll make honors.” This directive type of comment produces pressure on the student for future success without giving her any specific information about her performance. Personal praise, also, can have limited or negative value. “That’s the best report you’ve produced this term” does not give helpful, task-specific information and has a negative connotation if the student knows her report is poorer than other students’.

Thompson points out that information about failure can have positive effects on subsequent motivation and performance when the student learns to identify actions that contributed to his failure, such as inadequate study strategies. Research shows that feedback about success has no benefit over feedback about failure. It is not the ratio of positive or negative feedback that affects students’ motivation and performance, but the characteristics of the feedback.

Students who lack self-confidence are afraid to try hard, because they believe that if they fail after putting in a lot of effort, this proves they are dumb. Providing feedback to these children about their performance is particularly tricky. Unjustified, excessive or non-task-specific praise can perpetuate poor motivation in such students.

Thompson concludes that teachers need to pay particular attention to the way they provide information to students about their performance. Evaluative feedback needs to focus on specific actions rather than broad competencies or skills. It should be task-based, but not increase the pressure for future performance or try to impose extrinsic motivations. When teachers can provide clues to specific behaviors that lead to success, it reduces the uncertainty and negative attributions that students sometimes make about their performance.

Recognizing how difficult it is for teachers to change ingrained verbal and social habits, Thompson recommends analyzing videotaped episodes of teacher feedback. Taped examples of praise and blame can be powerful motivators for change. Used in conjunction with active modeling and rehearsal, teachers can increase the positive effects of their feedback to students.

“Do We Need to Train Teachers How to Administer Praise? Self-Worth Theory Says We Do,” Learning and Instruction Volume 7, Number 1, 1997, pp. 49-63.

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