In praise of praise?

How much do you praise students? Are you one of those teachers who automatically responds ‘good’ to any utterance, even if it’s actually hopelessly wrong or impossible to follow? Or do you believe in only praising very infrequently if at all, so that any praise is really valued? Probably, like me, you’re somewhere in the middle.

But have you actually made conscious decisions about how much praise to give, what kind of praise to give and when?

Most people are aware that praise which is perceived as not really having been earned, could have a negative effect.  If it’s just a reflex, students will cease to really listen to it. There is also some evidence that  too much praise can ‘convey a message of low expectations’ for low achievers, and even make stronger students less willing to take risks

So praise does have to be genuine, and it’s also important to think about what and how we praise. General praise (e.g. good job, well done) is, according to many researchers (Brophy, 1981; Gable et al. 2009; Hattie & Timperley 2007; Kalis, Vannest, & Parker 2007; Lannie, & McCurdy, 2007; Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2005- cited in Burnett and Mandel) not very effective. That makes sense to me because I think we all need to know what exactly we have done well, if we are to learn from the praise.

Most researchers agree that praise aimed at the students’ work is likely to be more effective than praise aimed at the student’s ability. So, saying ‘you are very good at spelling’ is not as effective as saying, ‘You worked hard and learnt all ten spellings really well,’  One reason for this is because students may come to believe that they cannot change what they are naturally good (or not good) at. It also means that those students who are not naturally good at something are unlikely to receive much praise, which is demotivating. (That said, if a student is actually very capable but lacks self-confidence, it can be helpful to praise their ability.)

The important thing, I would suggest, is that praise is specific, and a form of feedback, rather than a way of being ‘nice’.  Geoff Petty, a UK based teacher trainer in mainstream education (not ELT) talks about ‘medal and mission’ feedback.

A ‘medal’ is specific information about what a student has done well. So, in a writing task, for example, you might say ‘You have a very clear introduction and conclusion.’. A ‘mission’  is a specific piece of feedback about something that the student needs to improve. For example, ‘you need to make sure that each paragraph has one main idea’

There is, of course, much more to ‘medal and mission’ than just praise, but thinking of praise in terms of medals for specific achievements is helpful I think.

However, and it’s a big however, some researchers have found that praise of any sort can have at best a neutral effect, and at worst a negative effect.  Various pieces of research quoted in this article concluded that praise had very little positive effect and Skipper and Douglas found that praising ability actually had a negative effect (while praising effort had no effect at all).

My gut feeling and experience (as a learner and teacher) still tells me that specific and carefully thought out praise does have a positive effect on most students. So, what do you think? Is it different for different students? Does it make a difference what kind of praise it is, or when or how it is given? Comments very welcome.


Further reading





Filed under motivation, Teaching methodology, Working with groups

12 Responses to In praise of praise?

  1. It would be interesting to balance this article with the research that shows that criticism or negative feedback is even worse than praise.

    • Thanks for commenting. Praise is a huge area of research, and this really just scratches the surface, so I don’t think there was scope to look at criticism as well, but it’s also a fascinating area.

  2. A very interesting post, Rachael! I agree with your points and also feel/have seen that praise that focuses on students’ overall effort and work is more meaningful and helpful for them. Students see through us, so praise for the sake of praise can actually have the opposite results – many students might feel that you praise them because that’s what you do with everyone. So, praise in this case lacks individual attention to each student’s needs. Let’s not forget that family background also plays a very important role in this as the idea of praise differs greatly from one setting to another. I’ve had amazing students who were literally great at everything, but couldn’t see why I praised their efforts because they came from environments where their efforts weren’t acknowledged.

    • That’s a very good point, I think. We do indeed all interpret what happens to us according to our past experience, so the teacher has to be super sensitive to how what they say and do is being received by each student.

  3. My suspicion would be that the studies showing only neutral or negative effect of praise would betray the clinical conditions under which they were conducted. I was recently reminded in a post somewhere of what makes a good teacher – from a young student’s perspective. More than knowledge or dynamism, it’s about about the idea that a teacher *cares*. Without trying to become mother or father, we need to be human enough to bring the reality of social norms (or decent behaviour) into the class. We occasionally give compliments I hope to our colleagues for useful work they’ve done, even though they’re not being assessed. Of course, we *do* edit ourselves even here. An interesting thought that came to me was about complimenting a female teacher friend who has put some extra effort into her appearance. I generally steer clear of this in the staffroom (but have relented), and always in the classroom. The contexts are different. But I see no problem at all with explicitly (and even publicly) enjoying the scholastic achievement of students who have met a challenge. It’s only human.

    • Yes, I think there are likely to be so many unseen factors when looking at this kind of issue. I do strongly believe that good teaching is all about the relationships you build in the classroom, and would always go with my gut feeling about the right way to respond rather than a piece of research. But it’s interesting to consider these things, isn’t it?

  4. Tony

    I see some valid points and ways to think about praise. Personally, I tend to use it as little as possible as I don’t like it and feel that they value genuine praise better if you don’t throw it out indiscriminately. You say, go with your gut feeling. My gut feeling: to vomit when I hear ‘teachers’ use general praise which seems to be the only thing being said nowadays. My personal response to praise: I feel that praise is condescending that’s why I rarely like hearing it and tend to use it as little as possible. I like to hear criticism so that I can work on it myself, the teacher is there to help me improve on his valuable criticisms of me.

    • I tend to prefer specific feedback to praise too, but I think it is a very personal thing and perhaps the most important thing is to remember that we all respond differently. For many years I was a CELTA tutor and I have never forgotten one day after a teaching practice lesson when I started off a feedback session (on what I thought was a good lesson) by asking ‘How did you think it went?’ The trainee teacher interpreted this as criticism and burst into tears.

  5. It is confronting to be asked to self assess, though an essential skill for a teacher, but I think the trainee in question interpreted the question as a criticism because they had a tendency to be very self critical. I guess the point for me is that one person’s helpful feedback is another person’s devastating criticism, so we need to be very aware of individual differences, and also try to cultivate an environment where feedback is perceived as helpful and essential.
    I never asked an open question to start feedback like that again though!

  6. wlburns

    It’s interesting to me how much crossover there is in being a teacher and a parent. Praise is definitely one of those areas. One facet of praising work over ability that I’ve seen in parenting literature, but not educational literature is that if you tell a student, “You are a really good essay writer” and they then do poorly the next essay, they can think, “OK. I guess I was a good essay writer, but now I’ve changed and there’s nothing I can do about it.” In turn, this can numb the student to future praise. I also like the way it’s phrased in parenting guides. Use a verb, not a noun: “You did X well” as opposed to, “You are a good Y”

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