Is praise counter productive?

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

Screen Shot 2013-09-22 at 17.19.49

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

28 Responses to Is praise counter productive?

  1. Rebecca Hiscocks says:

    We use an approach calledHigh/scope which was created by David Weikart, an education psychologist. This uses encouragement rather than praise and develops children’s intrinsic motivation rather than them ‘performing’ for a sticker or teacher pleasing!

      • Rebecca Hiscocks says:

        Practitioners use encouragement that is specific and often related to the process rather than the end result.
        It’s about use of open-ended activities so that children cannot get things wrong. We always come from the can do attitude, not looking at what children can’t do.
        Activities are driven by the children’s interests which then provides the initial motivation.
        Adult child interactions are built on a partnership, children and adults construct their learning together.

        Not sure if that helps!

  2. […] via Is praise counterproductive? | David Didau: The Learning Spy. […]

  3. Lisa says:

    I was fortunate to hear Carol Dweck speak in May this year. She said Americans praise constantly and so process praise is the lesser of two evils so to speak. She advocated appreciation rather than praise (even process praise) which shows interest but offers no judgement. This might go some way to explaining the contradiction.

  4. May be it might be helpful to cast our minds back to our own experiences as pupils. What effect did praise have (or have not) on our future efforts? That is if we ever actually received any 😉

    I like a lot about the growth mindset but have never really been entirely convinced about not praising the person. I understand the reasoning behind praising the work or the effort but I wonder whether children really consider these things as deeply as the people who write about them do. I have a stamp that says ‘You’re a star’ (I have ‘business cards’ I give out that tells them the same. Pupils like to take these home to show their parents). I put this on work- with my comments- whenever I feel that someone deserves it. I can’t really tell whether it encourages them to strive even more. I doubt that it discourages them (but have no proof). I don’t see it as significant enough to spend time monitoring what happens next. Probably very difficult to assess, anyway.

    • David Didau says:

      It might be worth reading the research evidence i’ve linked to and making your own mind up. But I’m interested in how often what seems obvious and sensible actually turns out to be a poorer solution.

  5. John Hodgson says:

    I loathe being praised unless it is for work that I know is praiseworthy. It seems patronising. I work with European teaching assistants every year and they always comment on the quantity of praise doled out to primary school pupils for doing anything positive.

  6. […] reading the blog, Is Praise Counterproductive?, I was shocked by some of the results of the use of praise. Kessels, Warner, Holle & Hannover […]

  7. Pete Jones says:

    Praise where praise is due to coin a phrase. As teachers, we cannot help but share our enthusiasm for the great things our students are capable of, but building the right climate for praise and criticism is crucial. Get this right, then praise must have its place. A recognition of when hard work brings greater understanding is worth a pat on the back.

    • David Didau says:

      Well, not according to the evidence. The ‘pat on the back’ culture is often harmful. Interesting that it is usually enacted between more powerful and less powerful participants. It’s hard when these things fly in the face of what seems ‘natural’ or common sense.

  8. […] found this article to be very interesting and made me think a lot about praise in the classroom.  We are taught to praise our students to help them succeed in the classroom, but this article is […]

  9. […] particular has articulated sharply the sometimes contradictory views garnered from research about the power (or lack of power) of praise. Summarising Dweck, he outlines the apparent importance of making praise contingent on effort in […]

  10. david says:

    The current bulletin from ‘The Evidence Based Teacher’s Network’ comments that,

    “The simple idea of ‘two stars and a wish’ is not the best way to mix praise with feedback. When both happen together, the brain of the learner fixes on the praise. This mirrors the better-known finding that, if the student receives both a mark and a comment on their work, they focus on the mark.
    The research suggests that the best sequence is: give the feedback on its own first; then give the praise later, perhaps when the improvement has been made.
    The same is true of marks and feedback-comments: give the feedback first, then give marks once the improvement has been made”

    Not sure what the research is and how reliable it is-I can see some logic in it [ish] I also found the Dweck slant on praise the hardest part of her book and ideas to assimilate and explain to colleagues and students. With staff I suppose that I would talk about ‘make your praise really count’, in other words avoid the over the top praise of anything that moves and comment only on actions that have made a real difference towards a signifciant learning gain and then encourage the student to reflect on the ‘marginal gain’, dissecting the moves that led to well earned success. PP your learning or a peer-Purposeful Praise!

    I was hoping secretly that you would have delighted us all with an explanation of the ‘6 shoes od action’-probably a load of old cobblers, but good fun for a new school week!

  11. Lulu says:

    When I was a student, my English teacher once handed back my essay with a single red line through the entire thing. The comment underneath simply read, ‘You are better than this.’

    The 2 years I had her, she constantly marked me down and criticised the smallest details. The worst part? She was positive in feedback to most of my friends who were achieving much lower marks.

    I won’t lie, I hated her. Trouble is, in my heart I always knew she was right; in her approach and her comments. To those who were disheartened and hated English, she picked up on every small thing they did right to motivate them into keeping it up. To the ones who she thought could do better, our work was covered in more red than black ink and not a single word was positive.

    I worked harder for her than any teacher before or since.

  12. […] Is praise counter-productive? The need for ‘Why To’ guides Is there a right way to teach? […]

  13. […] I had an interesting discussion with Tim Taylor this morning.  […]

  14. […] seems to go a long way. For most every little improvement I make, I get tons of praise. While research suggests that praising students too much is counter-productive because it leads them to either […]

  15. […] it’s better to receive than to give Is praise counter productive? Deliberately difficult – why it’s better to make learning […]

  16. […] in a majority of cases. As an example, I conducted a mini investigation into the effects of praise on feedback last year. I’ll confess that I didn’t put any effort into designing a fair test, I just […]

  17. […] Take a look at the stars.”Excellent effort to copy descriptions” and “Correctly identified”. What point can there be in expecting a teacher to point these things out? Might students be unaware that they’ve met these basic expectations? No, of course not. And it’s unlikely many students are so needy as to feel motivated by having their teachers praise them for achieving a minimum standard. If you imagine that the teacher in question will have marked a set of 25-30 books in this way, the requirement to point out the blindingly obvious is a huge cost in terms of time. What’s more, there’s some good evidence that this kind of meaningless praise actually gets in the way of students acting …. […]

  18. […] 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.”  […]

  19. […] catenation Pointing intonation Word stress cards. Check Out These Technology Integration Scenarios. Is praise counter productive? 5 Min Video Tutorial on Using "Showbie" Via @syded06: The persistence of distance […]

  20. […] Feedback for Learning:Seven Keys to Effective Feedback. Is praise counter productive? […]

  21. […] diminishes independent thinking. There are other excellent discussions about this phenomenon by David Didau, but perhaps none more succinct than Kohn. But whether you agree or disagree with this notion, only […]

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

%d bloggers like this: