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The problem with praise

The problem with praise

There is an old adage that ‘praise is like penicillin…it must not be administered haphazardly’. Done well, it can help boost motivation and self-esteem. However, this is not always the case. Praise is a double-edged sword and if done wrong, it can do more harm than good. So, what type of praise should teachers give their students?

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Undermines Motivation

Contrary to popular beliefs, praise may serve to undermine motivation in children. In one particular study, mothers recorded their 4 year old’s prosocial behaviours and their own responses to such behaviours.

Surprisingly, the researchers found that the children who most frequently received no response for their acts were most likely to show positive behaviour. This means that there was not a strong relationship between prosocial behaviour and praise.

It appears that praising children may not always motivate them or improve their performance.


Lowers Self-Confidence

Whilst praise is often intended to improve student confidence, it can actually have the opposite effect for lower performing students.

Research found that struggling students took praise for completing an easy task to be an indication of teachers having a low perception of their ability, which subsequently had a detrimental effect on their self-confidence.


Limits Constructive Feedback

In many cases, the opposite of praise is constructive criticism, which may be more beneficial.

Constructive feedback helps students evaluate performances, allowing them to not only recognise what went well but more importantly what they need to improve on. If students can identify weaknesses they can then set challenging but realistic goals to address these. Being able to effectively use feedback and set goals leads to further gains such that it develops students’ metacognitive skills, which can increase progression by an additional 7 months.


Singles Out Students

Research has shown that between the ages of 14-18, students are particularly sensitive to their status in the group. Praising them, particularly publicly in front of their peers, can be embarrassing for many students. This is because praise singles them out and can lead to negative connotations, such as being seen as a “teachers’ pet”.

To avoid such connotations, students may stop performing the behaviour for which the praise was given, making it actually counterproductive. However, “The Whisper Correction”, where praise is delivered in a pitch and tone of voice that limits others’ attention to it, may provide one solution to this problem.


Causes A Fixed Mindset

The type of praise given to a child can have differing impacts on their mindset. In one particular study, students were given either process or person praise when solving a moderately difficult mathematical problem. Process praise focuses on the child’s strategy e.g. “you did really well; you must have tried really hard” whereas person praise concentrates on fixed attributes that a child cannot change, for example “you’re so clever”.

The students were then given more difficult problems which they were told they were unsuccessful in solving. The researchers found that students who had been given process praise demonstrated a growth mindset, by showing higher levels of effort and resilience, whilst not attributing their failure to a lack of ability. On the other hand, students who had been given person praise displayed a fixed mindset, were less resilient, blamed their failure on a lack of ability and did not try new strategies for fear of looking stupid.

It appears that teachers should focus on giving process praise, as person praise has a detrimental effect on mindset.


Final Thought

Teachers and parents need to be selective about when, how and what type of praise they give students. Praise does not always have positive effects and needs to be tailored to the student. The best way to think about praise is to focus on the behaviour you want to see repeated next time. Once this is clear, carefully thinking about how and where to deliver this message is key.

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