January 5th, 2015

Is Praise Undermining Student Motivation?


We think of praise as a good thing, even admirable. Don’t we praise our kids when they show us the drawing that they made in art class? To be anti-praise is almost like being anti-good person. We praise others in order to motivate them to improve achievement, as well as increase self-esteem. What can possibly be wrong with that?

The failure of praise
Research has found that praise can actually undermine performance and self-esteem in many contexts. One study found that praise for intelligence leads to the belief by the recipient that their intelligence is fixed, and thus not something that they can influence through action or effort (Dweck, 2007). This is critical because intelligence is in fact malleable, and improved by taking risks. Students grow when they try something difficult that might lead to failure. Because failure is one of the most important tools for learning, growth requires a mindset that embraces challenge and the potential for failure.

But students who are praised for intelligence do not seek challenges. When given the option of trying a difficult task that could lead to failure and growth, or an easy one that will not risk failure but produce no growth, those offered praise for their intelligence tend to choose the latter, thus undermining their growth. Worst yet, when forced to do a difficult problem they will quickly give up if failure appears on the horizon (Dweck, 2007).

In essence, these students are becoming dependent on praise because it is wrapped up with their self-esteem. They start thinking that the goal of school is praise, or grades, rather than learning. They become risk-averse in an effort to prevent blows to their self-esteem. They will even lie about their achievements in order to avoid the appearance of failure. Dependency on praise stunts growth, creates a fragile psyche, and even a sense of helplessness that undermines achievement (Kamins and Dweck, 1999).

Praising one’s intelligence and achievements also can undercut performance by muddling the real message needed for growth (Hylanda, 2001). One of the most common mistakes instructors make is to use the “feedback sandwich” with students. Their feedback starts with the good, then stating the real issues with the work, and ending with something good again. Here again, the model is used under the belief that it keeps up the student’s spirits, but in reality it only confuses the message. The student reads only the positive at either end and ignores the real message in the middle that they need to hear in order to improve, or they recognize the dissonance between the conflicting messages and wonder how they really did. “Gee,” they say to themselves, “the beginning and the end tell me this is great, while the middle says that there are all sorts of problems, so which is it?” The feedback sandwich can even reduce respect for the instructor since students will soon learn that no matter what they hand in, the instructor will praise it along a predictable formula, making the feedback meaningless and something to be ignored.

How to give more effective feedback
So what should an instructor do? The first thing is to switch from praise for intelligence or achievement to praise for effort. People have control over their level of effort, and if they see that the effort will be recognized, they tend to give more of it (Dweck, 2007). “You are putting a lot more time into your work and it is showing” will lead to even more effort and better performance.

Another option is to praise the process, rather than the product (Halverson, 2014). It is easy to forget that the product we receive from students is the result of a process to produce it, and failures in product are most likely failures in process. Thus, feedback directed at process will be more effective than feedback directed at the product, and not surprisingly, praise for process is far more effective than praise for product. How does the student research a topic, plan the work, collaborate with others, etc.? These are the areas that should be the focus of feedback anyway, as they are the areas where improvements will do the most good, and praise for process—which again is under a person’s control—is far more effective than praise for the final product.

Second, switch from giving praise to giving positive feedback. Praise is an expression of approval for another person’s characteristics or behavior. It gives the appearance that satisfying the teacher is the goal of education. By contrast, positive feedback is information on what the student did well, while negative feedback is information on what the student did poorly (Wiggins, 2012). Together they tell the student what he or she needs to continue to do and what he or she needs to work on in order to improve. Positive and negative feedback are tied to objective standards of excellence, and give the message that the goal of education is to reach standards of excellence, not gain teacher approval.

So pocket the motivational praise, and focus instead on providing students with the information that need to grow.

For more on how to give effective feedback to students, check out the new whitepaper Feedback for Learning, written by John Orlando, PhD. Preview Now »

Dweck, C. (2007). The perils and promises of praise. Educational Leadership, v. 65, i. 2.

Halvorson, H. (2014). The Key To Great Feedback? Praise the Process, Not the Person. 99U.

Hylanda, Fiona and Hyland, Ken. (2001). Sugaring the pill: Praise and criticism in written feedback. Journal of Second Language Writing, v. 10, 185 – 212.

Kamins, Melissa L. and Dweck, Carol S. (1999) Person versus process praise and criticism: Implications for contingent self-worth and coping. Developmental Psychology, v. 35, i. 3, May 1999, 835-847. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.35.3.835.

Wiggins, G. (2012). Seven keys to effective feedback. Educational Leadership, v. 70, i. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept12/vol70/num01/Seven-Keys-to-Effective-Feedback.aspx

Dr. John Orlando is the associate director of faculty training at Northcentral University and serves on the Online Classroom editorial advisory board.

© Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

  • JoeM

    The concept of Growth Mindset is so important for student learning and, really, for all of us to keep learning! I liked how the author showed that praise of intelligence shifts students into a Fixed Mindset, while praise of process can shift to a Growth Mindset. It's nice to see solid research and theory guiding suggestions for instructional practices.

  • chemosavvi

    How do you measure effort in order to praise it? You can ask students to list the study practices they have been engaged in to attempt to assess the level of their effort. Often, however, students will self describe how hard they are working. In my experience (39 yrs), students who want to voluntarily tell me about their effort are frequently holding examination papers in their hands which show little grasp of the material they have studied (Organic Chemistry) or the concepts behind it. Also most of these students describe reading and rereading the textbook as their principal activity. I always advise omitting the rereading and finding a study partner with whom to discuss notes, old exams, and the fundamental concepts outlined in the course presentation. And when they return without having found a study partner, what's to praise?

    • Abdeladim Elhamdani

      just tell them that the solution of the problem they have is proportional to he effort they put to resolve the problem and they should put more effort by educating themselves by discussing with their friends, online or at the library.

  • Dennis

    The title asks, "Is Praise Undermining Student Motivation?" The answer presented in the article is that praising one thing as opposed to another thing may undermine student motivation, which means that it isn't praise per se that is causing the problem. There isn't really a definition of the word until the next-to-last paragraph, where the author says that it's "an expression of approval for another person’s characteristics or behavior." There are, however, other ways of expressing approval, so the definition finally doesn't make a clear distinction between praise and positive feedback, which is also an expression of approval for another person's behavior.

    I suspect that if one were to collect data using differently-worded questions, one would find that praise in an indispensable tool for teaching, but like every other tool, it is effective only in contexts where its use is appropriate. I don't know anyone who advocates the use of personal affirmation without some context related to the educational goals of a program of study; I'm sure there are teachers who do that intuitively, and the material presented here could help shift that behavior to something more effective, but the approach taken here seems to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The implicit definition of "praise" in this article seems to be "expressions of unqualified approval of a student's personal characteristics regardless of whether they are helpful for academic success;" I don't know very many college-level teachers who practice that sort of thing. Mostly what I see around me are efforts to compliment appropriate behavior and scholarship, which I think does reinforce appropriate behavior.

    I have had more than a few students who arrived in my classes convinced of their own ineptitude and hopelessness; there is very much a place for helping such students gain confidence in their abilities, and handled well, expressions of approval could go a long way to undergirding motivation rather than undermining it.

  • Russ Hunt

    I think Alfie Kohn (_Punished by Rewards:The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes_, 1993) had, along Ed Deci on extrinsic rewards, pretty much the last words to say about what's wrong with praise.

  • Perry Shaw

    As Dr Orlando hints at, the important thing is to keep the goal in mind – meaningful and substantial learning. In order to accomplish this certain types of "praise" may be important when they point away from weak approaches towards better approaches, just as "critique" can be the counterpoint. The issue is not whether or not to praise, but the strategies we use to promote quality learning.

  • MBeutner

    As a professor who teaches K-12 teachers in a graduate program, I have come to realize that the students who enter university are the products of indiscriminate praise from K through 12. As a result, the population of university students do, as this article states, have an expectation that this "stroking" with or without effort will continue.

    I have also spent approximately a decade in Asia teaching at a Chinese university where students did NOT get praise. In fact, we were told NOT to praise students because…. it would undermine effort. As far as I know, this is one of the greatest differences in educational perspective (West compared with East). Based on my own experiences, this holds true in Korea, Japan, Philippines, and Indonesia.

    Could excessive praising compromise a country's ability to grow, innovate, and excel? I think it does. Effort, as I agree with the author, is the key issue. When students are averse to try harder, they learn less.

    Great article!

  • Kieran Mathieson

    I'm a prof, and creator of open source software to improve skills courses. The software includes features to help graders give feedback focused on students' work, not students themselves. Your article is a good explanation of why this matters. I linked to it in a wiki article on feedback, at https://wiki.cybercour.se/wiki/exercises-scaffold… listing your name to give you credit. It's under the section "Feedback, not praise."

    I'd appreciate any thoughts you have about my own work.

    Kieran Mathieson https://cybercour.se

  • M Bhate

    I tend to agree with your article.. Praise the effort rather than only the achievement. I'm a teacher and a mom and what experience has taught me is more or less what you say. However, as each child is different- its slightly different strokes for different folks..being able to motivate is what is important …

  • Poonam Prakash

    Very good article. I particularly like the idea of focussing on the process and not on the product. As a teacher with tight deadlines, we tend to forget the process and start being negative or positive on the product handed.

  • Jaron Mcglover

    I like the idea of the article that intelligence is only the variable of what a student is willing to risk. Praise should be given, and not to be seeked. Very informative article on how the balance could predetermine the success of anyone.

  • Dean Bowen

    The 'feedback sandwich" has always intrigued me. I see the merit in it, but I have also seen a look of confusion on student's faces after reading "negative" comments between "positive" ones. I've found it more useful to simply make the corrective comments where needed and add the positive comments where they apply as well. I think the students appreciate this straight forward approach.
    Dean Bowen