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.