Compared with the task of delivering critical feedback, praising students when they do well may seem like a breeze. Celebrating students’ accomplishments can certainly be one of the more enjoyable aspects of teaching. Like critical feedback, positive feedback offers great opportunities to communicate your belief in your students’ ability to learn. In this section, we discuss strategies for delivering praise in a way that is motivating and compelling for students.
- Avoid Person-Focused Praise. Praise that focuses on the student as a whole person (e.g., saying “you’re so smart!” or “you’re great at math!”) might seem like a great way to boost students’ self-esteem. But research by Carol Dweck and others shows that this kind of person-focused feedback can backfire—even when it’s positive. Hearing “you’re so smart” in response to a high score can make students feel good in the moment. But when they inevitably have to struggle, those students then start thinking, “maybe I’m not so smart after all,” and become discouraged. Study after study has shown that when students are given person-focused praise, their motivation can fall apart when tasks become challenging (1, 2, 3). Not only that, but labeling some students in a class as “smart” or “talented” implies that other students are not smart, even if this was not the teacher’s intention. Instead of attributing success to “smartness,” call out the specific strategies that helped the students succeed (see below).
- Highlight Specific Improvements (and link to the associated strategy). When praising a well-done essay, it is more useful for students to point out why and how the student’s writing worked well, rather than simply saying “you’re such a good writer” or just “good job” (1). Maybe the student did a nice job of introducing the main ideas in their opening paragraph, or perhaps they thought of a great way to address a counter-argument. Pointing out these specific accomplishments teaches students much more than just hearing “good job” — it helps them recognize the specific strategies and skills that helped them succeed. To see how one teacher highlights specific improvements for praise, check out this video from the PERTS Mindset Kit.
- More Praise Isn’t Always Better. Noticing and celebrating students’ progress is a wonderful thing. If you are the kind of teacher that can’t help but bubble over with enthusiasm for your students’ growth, be yourself! But if frequent praise doesn’t come naturally to you, don’t worry: research suggests that constant praise is not necessary. In fact, too much praise can sometimes be counterproductive, especially when it comes across as inauthentic and over the top (“wow, that was an incredibly amazing sentence!”), or if it is given for mediocre work (4, 5).
1. Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1), 33–52.
2. Cimpian, A., Arce, H.-M. C., Markman, E. M., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Subtle linguistic cues affect children’s motivation. Psychological Science, 18(4), 314–316.
3. Kamins, M. L., & Dweck, C. S. (1999). Person versus process praise and criticism: Implications for contingent self-worth and coping. Developmental Psychology, 35, 835–847.
4. Brummelman, E., Thomaes, S., Orobio de Castro, B., Overbeek, G., & Bushman, B. J. (2014). “That’s not just beautiful--that’s incredibly beautiful!”: The adverse impact of inflated praise on children with low self-esteem. Psychological Science, 25, 728–735.
5. Brophy, J. (1981). Teacher praise: A functional analysis. Review of Educational Research, 51(1), 5–32.