I had an interesting discussion with Tim Taylor this morning. He said,  “At best, praising effort has a neutral or no effect when students are successful, but is likely to be negative when students are not successful.”

But what could possibly be wrong with praise? Surely praise is one of the most fundamental way to motivate pupils? Teachers are, generally, keen to praise pupils, and pupils , generally, welcome and expect it. We use praise to reward or change pupils’ behaviour, and to that extent it may well be effective. But could this praise also be diluting learning and effort? Various research seems to indicate that contrary to popular belief, praise does not help students learn. Kessels, Warner, Holle & Hannover (2008) found that when pupils were provided with feedback with and without praise, feedback with praise led to lower engagement and effort!

But although there are some who cast aspersions on the concept of engagement, we all want our pupils to make greater effort, don’t we? Like almost everyone in education, my thoughts on effort have been heavily influenced by Carol Dweck’s ubiquitous theory of fixed and growth mindsets. I’ve found this a very useful way of thinking about the world, and it’s certainly true that just telling pupils about the existence of these two mindsets can have an impact of their attitude to effort. But I’ve become increasingly unconvinced by one of her central claims, namely that the way to induce a growth mindset is to praise the effort pupils make rather than their ability.

When students were praised for effort, 90 percent of them wanted challenging new tasks they could learn from. ” This is pretty clear, isn’t it? She goes on to say that in contrast to ability praised students who gave up at tasks as they got difficult,  ‘The effort-praised students still loved the problems, and many of them said that the hard problems were the most fun.

Carol Dweck, Mindset

In a nutshell: if you praise students’ effort it will increase their likelihood of persevering at challenging tasks. But…

Kamins and Dweck (1999) compared the effects of praising a person as a whole (for example, “You’re a clever girl”) with the effect of praising a person’s efforts (“You’re excellent in putting in the effort”). Both led to zero or negative effects on achievement.

John Hattie, Visible Learning for Teachers p 121

What are we to make of that? Is it just me, or do Dweck’s earlier research findings directly contradict the claims made in her best-selling 2006 book Mindset, the New Psychology of Success? It would seem that praising effort is no more beneficial than praising ability, or anything else. Worrying perhaps, but does this mean that we should stop praising pupils altogether?

Well, maybe. The devalued ‘well done’ currency of many schools sucks! It prevents teachers stating that sometimes work has no merit: it’s not good enough and they need to damn well do it better. It also leads to praise for the barest minimum of effort: Managed to hand your home work in on time this week? Well done. However, the real problem seems to be that praise can be particularly negative when pupils begin to fail, or struggle to understand what’s being taught. Hyland and Hyland (2006) noted that almost half of teachers’ feedback was praise, and that “premature and gratuitous praise confused students and discouraged revisions.” But surely all this suggests is that praise should be separated from feedback? It makes sense that making a value judgement (praise) could have a negative impact on pupils likelihood to act on information on how to improve (feedback). Why should they improve their work if it has been praised? As Hattie says, “for feedback to be effective in the act of learning, praise dissipates the message.”

But perhaps the most toxic effect of praise is that it leads to learned helplessness: pupils come to depend on the presence of praise to be involved in their work. According to Skipper & Douglas praising effort has, at best, a neutral or no effect when pupils are successful. But praise is likely to be negative when they struggle because this leads to a more ‘helpless or hopeless’ reaction.

Alfie Kohn is dead against praise considering it patronising and an abuse of power. He says:

[Praise] tends to reduce the recipient’s interest in the task, or commitment to the action, that elicited the praise.  Often it also reduces the quality of whatever was done.  The effect of a “Good job!” is to devalue the activity itself — reading, drawing, helping — which comes to be seen as a mere means to an end, the end being to receive that expression of approval.  If approval isn’t forthcoming next time, the desire to read, draw, or help is likely to diminish.  Praise isn’t feedback (which is purely informational); it’s a judgment — and positive judgments are ultimately no more constructive than negative ones.

So, that seems pretty clear, doesn’t it?

Praise has the following deleterious effects:

  • It leads to low engagement and effort
  • It has no positive effects on achievement
  • It leads to learned helplessness
  • It’s confusing
  • It’s patronising

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But what about good, old-fashioned common sense? We know how good praise can make us feel, don’t we? Surely to goodness we should be suspicious of research that seems to fly in the face of the evidence of our senses? I know when I’ve shared some of these findings with teachers, they have been appalled and unwilling to listen. This seems too much like foolish academic nonsense with no place in the real world. I’m not saying that there’s no place for praise, of course there is. But I urge caution. Although I’d definitely recommend distancing ourselves from harmful buffoonery like the praise sandwich and 3 stars and a wish; these certainly decrease the likelihood of pupils acting on feedback . At best positivity for its own sake is a waste of time, at worst it’s transparently manipulative.

But no one would disagree with the power of a sincere compliment – the difficulty is in knowing the difference. Maybe we should start thinking about how best to encourage pupils to learn. Is there a meaningful distinction between such concepts as praise, encouragement and appreciation? More to follow…

Related posts

Making feedback stick
Deliberately difficult – why it’s better to make learning harder
The art of failing