Taking a critical look at praise

7th March 2014 at 00:00
A pat on the back may seem like common sense, but some argue it could actually damage motivation

Most teachers would admit that even if they are inclined to focus on the negative, they would like to praise students more. And so they should: a few words of praise for a student who is doing the right thing, or making an effort, is an essential part of a teacher's repertoire. Right?

Surprisingly, the research is not unanimous on that point. There seems to be some confusion on the issue, as demonstrated in Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn by John Hattie and Gregory Yates.

At one point, the authors discuss the principle that "bad is stronger than good", so "we mentally balance one bad event against perhaps four or five good ones". They add: "If the ratio of good to bad events drops under three, we can expect trouble. Yet, when we critique students' work, the number of negative comments can easily exceed the number of positive ones."

So apparently we should be careful to praise more.

And yet, Hattie and Yates go on to say: "Praise makes people happier.but it does not assist you to learn.In teaching contexts, it is more responsible to increase informational feedback while going lean on praise."

This suggests we should be rationing praise, stripping its influence from our feedback, leaving only facts without emotion.

The confusions are multiple. I can't imagine how to write positive comments on students' work that would not be perceived as praise. Furthermore, is the writing of four or five positive comments for every criticism consistent with "going lean on praise"? I'm just not clear.

The origins of this muddle are in the behaviourist versus constructivist wars that have raged in education since at least the 1970s. With behaviourism, a student's behaviour is seen as a response to an external stimulus such as the promise of some reward or the threat of a punishment. Behaviourists are therefore interested in determining which stimuli elicit which behaviours. They are not concerned with "mentalistic" discussions about what is going on inside the mind.

Constructivists, by contrast, focus on the idea that an understanding of the world is something that individuals construct for themselves, sometimes aided by discussions with peers.

For behaviourists, praise is a stimulus that elicits results, whereas for constructivists, this sort of validation is ineffective; instead, they emphasise intrinsic motivation - so the student works not for praise but for feelings of satisfaction.

The constructivist case has been taken up by US writer Alfie Kohn. He writes: "In general, the more kids are induced to do something for a reward, whether tangible or verbal, the more you see a diminution of interest the next time they do it. That can be explained partly by the fact that praise, like other rewards, is ultimately an instrument of control."

Raiding the toolbox

However, after analysing many studies on tangible rewards, such as money, prizes and verbal rewards (praise), academics from the University in Alberta in Canada came to the conclusion that "verbal rewards were found to significantly enhance both free-choice intrinsic motivation and self-reported task interest". This flatly contradicts Kohn's position and suggests that praise could certainly have an impact on learning by increasing a student's motivation.

How, as teachers, should we wade through this debate?

Whenever there is a disagreement in the research, experience and craft knowledge have to count. I expect that most teachers see praise as a common-sense component of their toolbox and use it judiciously to help motivate students.

To find help on using praise effectively like this, it is useful to look to the work of Carol Dweck. She has conducted plenty of research on how students receive praise and the messages that it gives. In short, she says, we should aim to praise those aspects over which a student has control - such as their level of effort - rather than those over which they have no control - such as their level of latent ability. So rather than saying "you must be smart at this", we should make comments such as "you must have worked really hard".

On this issue, then, the best conclusion we can come to is to tie a knot in your handkerchief and remember to praise the next time you're in the classroom. But make sure that you are praising the behaviour that you want to reinforce and your students can control.

Greg Ashman is a teacher at Ballarat Clarendon College in Victoria, Australia


Cameron, J, Banko, KM and Pierce WD (2001) "Pervasive negative effects of rewards on intrinsic motivation: the myth continues", The Behavior Analyst, 241: 1-44.

Dweck, C (2006) Mindset: the new psychology of success (Ballantine Books).

Hattie, J and Yates, G (2013) Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn (Routledge).

Kohn, A (1995) "Punished by rewards? A conversation with Alfie Kohn", Educational Leadership, 531: 13-16.

What else?

Help build students' confidence with this Teachers' TV video on how to give specific praise.


Everyone needs to know how to give effective praise - this presentation will give your staff the lowdown.


Make praise a double-edged sword with this article on how to use rewards as a sanction.


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