Effective Student Praise

Is No Praise Good Praise?

It is a widely held assumption that praising a child will motivate them to work even harder by boosting their self-esteem and performance, but new evidence suggests that this may not be the case. The automatic reaction of a parent to a child who has struggled through weeks of revision only to scrape a pass on the end of term test is one of inflated praise and reassurance: ‘well done, you passed, that’s fantastic!’ However, rewarding mediocre achievement with overly excessive praise may be doing more harm than good.

In October, a report by the Sutton Trust (2014) noted that teachers who give lavish praise to a student in return for successful performance on an easy task may in fact be conveying a message of low expectations. Rather than enhancing the child’s self confidence, failure that was met with sympathy and reward was more likely to cause the student to attribute their failure to a lack of ability, discouraging them from making more effort to improve next time. Instead, constructive criticism of poor performance can be interpreted by the student as an indication that the teachers recognises their potential.

Reward Work, Not Talent

Other research has suggested the key is in knowing what sort of student praise is beneficial. A study by Kamins and Dweck (1999) found that the conventional wisdom of praising an individual’s traits was wrong. Three groups of children aged five to six years were given roleplaying tasks that resulted in either person, being given outcome or process criticism. The three groups were then given tasks that resulted in either person, being given outcome or process praise. The results showed that children displayed far more responses of helplessness when given person criticism or praise, suggesting that person feedback, even if it is positive praise, can create a sense of vulnerability and cause the individual’s measure of self worth to be more closely dependant on feedback from others. Praising a child for being intelligent (person feedback) teaches them that this is a fixed trait and outside of their control. The result being that the child may feel wary of any future challenges in case they are unable to maintain this high standard.

More recent studies have made further assessments about the effectiveness (or lack of) of praise. In an article published in the Journal of Philosophy of Education, Suissa (2001) highlights a problematic trend in western society to offer praise for every small accomplishment, and label children as talented or gifted for seemingly insignificant things. The motivation behind this behaviour is to instil a sense of confidence in the child that will continue into adulthood. Instead, Suissa argues, the result is what she describes as a ‘praise junkie’. Praise junkie adults eventually become high maintenance employees who require constant affirmation from others and leave employers with the question of how to provide effective motivation. Suissa also delves into the morality of praise, highlighting the opinion of theorists such as Kohn (2001) that praise is morally questionable if it emphasises a relationship that is outside of the child’s control, and does not work as an effective long term behavioural control. A child has a deep need for approval, and there is a danger that despite the good intentions of the praise-giver, the more often a child is told that they have done a good job, the worse a child will begin to feel about themselves (as they will not be able to live up to a perfect ideal) and thus the more praise they will need.

Finding A Balance

A more cautious approach towards giving children praise has been previously noted in various ‘positive parenting’ literature, noting that too much praise can both diminish its value and teach children to become reliant on receiving praise from others before they are able to move on to another task. It can encourage reluctance in a child to judge things for themselves as they get older, instead remaining dependant on the opinion of others. The same warning can be applied to praise in the classroom. In regards to the issue of over reliance on others, Suissa recommends shifting the focus from external to internal motivation, with the teacher or parent questioning how the student feels about their work.

Student praise does have a positive role to play in developing a sense of self-value and worth. However it is important to focus on the process rather than the end result. Praising exceptional effort, for example, rather than natural talent, will encourage the child to repeat that effort the next time they are faced with a problem. Criticism can also play an important role when offered in a constructive way that teaches the child how to remedy the problem.


Photo: Ilmicrofono Oggiono

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